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USA facing biggest game in national team history vs. Belgium

In a 2014 World Cup where the stakes are already high for every team left, the U.S. is facing a seminal moment as Belgium clash could be most important match ever.

SALVADOR, Brazil-- If you ever wondered just how important the World Cup really is to the players competing in it, all you had to do was look at the faces of Brazilian players before the decisive penalty shootout victory against Chile last Saturday.

The anguish, desire, fear and pressure faced by the Brazilians who took part in that shootout said it all. The emotions of an entire country were riding on every kick and every attempted save, and the players knew that as they delivered a dramatic and emotional victory.

The U.S. team isn't facing quite the same pressures as a Brazil is, or what soccer-crazed nations like Germany and the Netherlands and Colombia are facing, but that doesn't make it any less daunting or important. What the Americans are facing in Tuesday's round of 16 match against Belgium is only the most important match in U.S. national team history.

Sure, you could argue that qualifying for the 1990 World Cup was a more important match, or even beating Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, but what makes this tournament, and this particular match more special, is the cresting wave of interest that has been building in the U.S. national team since its tournament-opening win against Ghana.

TV ratings are through the roof as national media suddenly latch on to the appealing storyline of the underdog Americans surviving the Group of Death and now standing poised to make a deep run in a tournament few realistically expect them to win.

It isn't about winning the World Cup though,  at least not in the context of why this World Cup matters. This tournament matters for American soccer because it is a chance to ride an improbable wave of interest, and a chance to hook a new generation of casual fans who have caught the World Cup bug, and done so while also watching the U.S. team play some of the best soccer of its recent memory.

We have been here before at the World Cup. In 2002, Americans started to gain interest as the U.S. team shocked the world with an upset of Portugal and dramatic draw with host country South Korea, then things kicked up another notch with a round of 16 victory against Mexico before peaking with the team's loss to Germany. By the time the Americans went home that summer, the sport had received a tangible boost that you could argue helped rejuvenate Major League Soccer, which only a year earlier had undergone contraction and faced an uncertain future.

This World Cup has a chance to be even more significant than the 2002 tournament for American soccer because of how much has changed in the social media landscape, and how that has helped magnify the impact of the World Cup. When the Americans defeated Ghana in their World Cup opener, we were not only able to see images of U.S. fans dominating the stadium in Natal that day, we were able instantly see videos and images of packed watch parties across the country. Diehard fans and casual fans were able to pass along their emotional messages and it all not only gave us a better sense of how much interest there is in the sport, it also helped attract even more interest from casual sports fans wondering what all the fuss was about.

Now we find stadiums and parks filled with Americans rooting for the U.S. national team, and media outlets like the New York tabloid newspapers are covering the World Cup like never before, with front pages and back pages devoted to a sport you would normally struggle to find any mention of in those same publications.

That is why the USA-Belgium match will be the most important match in American soccer history. Because a victory will keep the tidal wave moving, and create the potential for more long-lasting impact for soccer in America. If the Americans win, they could set up a quarterfinal date with Lionel Messi and Argentina on a 4th of July weekend, which would almost certainly shatter all previous TV viewer ratings and catch the interest of even more casual sports fans.

So, unlike Brazil, which is playing knowing that the hopes and dreams of an entire country ride on every result, the U.S. team is playing knowing that success can mean helping get America that much closer to being that sort of country. That dream, as much as the World Cup trophy, is what makes the Belgium match one with more on the line than any U.S. national team match before it.

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