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It's over for U.S. at World Cup, but America hopes it's just the start

For two weeks, Americans showed how united they can be behind a national sports team
Now it's time for the U.S. to become a real World Cup contender

For the U.S. men's soccer team, the 2014 World Cup ended in sprawled exhaustion on the coast of Brazil.

For others, it ended in the deathly quiet of a bar in the middle of Eagle Rock.

For more than two hours on a steamy Tuesday afternoon, the patio area of the 5 Line Tavern and Lounge was filled with the chanting and screaming clamor of possibility. The next moment, the room was empty and silent, the noise and hope streaming out to Colorado Boulevard and the midafternoon heat.

Quickly, so quickly, the room was transformed into just another bar, its dark wood tables stripped clean of all signs of the blanketing fervor that had earlier turned it into a combination dance hall and revival tent. But just before leaving I noticed a lone survivor, sitting in one forgotten tiny puddle of beer, next to a scrap of pizza crust and a wadded napkin.

It was a thin stick attached to a tiny American flag. It was why Tuesday's 2-1 elimination loss to Belgium was hopefully not an ending, but a beginning. It is why it has finally become not only important, but necessary, for the U.S. team to finally to get its act together and make this real.

For the past two weeks, for the first time ever, thanks to increased technological accessibility that enabled a national conversation, soccer showed its power to unite this country of different colors and cultures like no other sport. Americans watched in record numbers. Americans gathered in record crowds. Americans talked and blogged and buzzed about it in sports debates that have never contained this many different kinds of voices.

"For two weeks, it was as if the entire world was leaning on our bar, yet they were all cheering for America," said Hoivk Dan Kechabashyan, co-owner of 5 Line. "It was something we had never seen before. It was something beautiful."

Shortly after I found a seat in the 5 Line patio nearly an hour before the 1 p.m. game, the place filled up, every chair and table taken, people standing two deep at the bar, giant TVs hanging everywhere, a loud sound system blaring "The Star Spangled Banner" that everyone cheered.

By everyone, I mean, there were Asian American women in one corner dressed in flag shirts, a Latino couple in another corner wearing flag bandannas, African Americans waving those little flags, and even one dude dressed in an entire soccer uniform who looked like Clint Dempsey.

Then there was my two companions who would talk to each other in Armenian yet cheer in American. Koko Kederian, 65, owns Champion Cleaners in Pasadena and has been in this country nearly four decades. His buddy Hovig Dimejian, 55, is a real estate broker who has been here almost as long.

For once, they were enjoying a sports event that could connect them to both their homeland and their home. For once, they felt comfortable watching and sharing their sport with strangers.

"Take it from me, I played soccer all my young life, the U.S. is going to win," said Kederian as the game began.

"Win the game?" I asked.

"No, win the entire World Cup," he said.

"You're crazy," I said.

"I am not picking a soccer team, I am picking a country," he said.

That's what happened over the last couple of weeks, right? We weren't gathering together to only cheer for a soccer team, we were coming together to cheer for a country, coming together in a unified way that doesn't even exist during the Olympics.

Soccer is important in America not because it's a beautiful game, but because of the beauty it reflects in America. There were so many different kind of accents heard cheering for the U.S. team at the 5 Line Tuesday, the place was like a bleacher of babel. At one point, after yet another close U.S. miss, one woman just simply let out a blood-curdling scream that could be understood by all, and for that she received a huge ovation.

A soccer tournament which has long been the biggest sporting event in the world is indeed finally showing its unifying power here, which makes it so vital that the American team start sticking around a little longer.

Face it, for all the attaboys thrown around after Tuesday's loss, the truth is the Americans could have won. They wasted 90 minutes of all-even play against a more technically skilled squad. They wasted 16 saves by goalkeeper Tim Howard, the most in the World Cup in more than 50 years.

And, yeah, they could have won in stoppage time at the end of regulation when Chris Wondolowski found himself in front of the net with an open shot over a diving Belgian goalkeeper. Yet Wondo chipped it over the net in a miss that will be hanging in that Brazilian air until somebody can make it disappear four years from now in Russia.

The truth is as simple and pained as the solitary cry in that Eagle Rock bar. The U.S. team is getting better. But for now, the Americans lack the strength, skill and swagger to go further. And somehow, that must change.

"Sometimes when you give your best, it doesn't come off," said Howard to ESPN afterward. "Dream falls short."

Once the dreams of a relatively few, these have now become the dreams of a nation. While the last two weeks doesn't necessarily mean a spike in interest in Major League Soccer, four years from now in next World Cup in Russia, the American fans will be bought in before the first kick. Four years from now, there should be every expectation that this American team will let us enjoy our unity for just a little while longer.

As folks were filing out of the 5 Line Tuesday afternoon, the loudspeakers were filled with a voice that clearly hoped to keep the party alive just a little bit longer.

"For the next hour, all drinks are half off!"

The final offer was met with a final chant, one filled with a laughter and appreciation that sounded the same in any language.

"U-S-A …U-S-A …"

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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