The first time his bright orange cleats touched the ball on the run, the 78,936 fans in the stands of the New Meadowlands Stadium went quiet.
The gasp was audible. Lionel Messi was on the ball.
Later, when Juan Agudelo’s foot wrapped the ball around the post into the net to tie the game, a giant American flag seemed to dance behind him as he leaped in celebration.
The cheer was almost deafening. Agudelo had done it again.
Two years ago, Argentina and the United States met in the old Meadowlands and played what may have been the most exciting 0-0 draw ever played. Saturday night, they met again, but this time, each team would score, finishing in a 1-1 draw.
They couldn’t be more different. Messi, the wizard, would be considered too small to play any other sport, yet he routinely dominates soccer like few others ever have. Agudelo, the up-and-comer, defines the American way, a strong and bruising player with a flair for the dramatic.
This match was supposed to be a friendly, a game with no title on the line. But for the fans filling the three tiers of this still-sparkling new facility, the ones testing the ushers’ patience just for a better view, it represented something more.
For Argentina, this was a chance to put the Diego Maradona era behind it, to begin a new reign, one built around the 23-year-old Messi and his unrivaled prowess. For the United States, this was a chance to stand its ground against a world power, to show its veteran core was about to be splashed with a wave of youthful energy.
There were other stars as well. Landon Donovan, hero of the World Cup, the best player to ever don the U.S. emblem was playing on full rest for the first time in quite a while. Tim Howard, who all but stood on his head to keep his team in the game continued to show why he is the No. 1 American goalkeeper. Javier Zanetti, the ageless defensive rock, again asked what was Maradona thinking leaving him home this past summer.
But it all came down to two players. One who left the United States defense lunging at air, who spun midfielder Michael Bradley around like a top and who forced Howard into a miraculous reaction save, and the other who came on at the half to spark some life into a sagging team, who found a way to play with Jozy Altidore and who brought a second wind to an electric atmosphere.
It was just one game. Argentina moves on to prepare for its host role in the Copa America, a tournament it has not won in 18 years, still working toward a new identity. The United States will play again Wednesday, but it remains to be seen if it will stick with a five-man midfield, a formation that best utilizes its player pool or if manager Bob Bradley returns to his trademark 4-4-2 and gives Agudelo, just 18 years old, his first senior team start.
None of that mattered for two hours on Saturday night. It was about the masses of Abiceleste fans chanting their hero’s name or the home fans drowning out chants of “Ar-gen-tina” with a resounding “U-S-A” time and time again.
When the last whistle sounded, Agudelo quickly made his way to Messi as he left the field. From there they walked, Agudelo, the superstar in the making, and Messi, the magician, the best in the world, arms around each other after a thrilling match.
It truly is a beautiful game.