On the eve of arguably the biggest game in U.S. soccer history, WSJ sports reporter Matt Futterman takes a look at four key points to the match, and what the U.S. needs to do to advance to the knockout stage of the World Cup. The game kicks off Thursday at 12pm ET.

Recife, Brazil

So this is what it feels like to be a soccer nation.

The heartbreak when Portugal tied the game in the final seconds. The frustration that lingered into the next morning. The queasiness that has been building ever since. The terror that will come as kickoff against Germany arrives.

This is what people across the oceans and south of the border have been going through for decades. Worker productivity will drop to near zero Thursday for the midday match. There will be face paint and fan fests and, if things don’t go America’s way, utter despair.

Welcome, America, to big-time international soccer.

“Massive,” is how Jurgen Klinsmann described the match with Germany in Recife on Brazil’s northeast coast.

“The biggest game of most of our lives,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman.

Terrifying is what most fans, devout and casual, would probably say. A win or a draw sends the U.S. to the knockout round. Lose and the Americans have to pray for a Ghana-Portugal draw, or a slim win by one of those teams.

It is a harrowing set of prospects when the mighty Germans are on the other side of the ball. “We should take them seriously,” Germany midfielder Mesut Özil said of the Americans on Wednesday, “but if we implement everything our coach has told us to do, we should win.” Yikes.

Ever since the U.S. started qualifying for World Cups again in 1990 after a four-decade absence, the narrative of U.S. men’s soccer has been one of baby steps toward a very debatable concept: That eventually, America’s size and wealth, and the athleticism of its youth, will propel the U.S. men to the top of international soccer, just as they have done for the women.

U.S. fans react during a live broadcast of the FIFA 2014 World Cup Group G football match against Portugal on Sunday.
Valery Sharifulin/Zuma Press

In truth, the men’s national team has developed a quadrennial pattern of one step forward, one step back.

In 1990 the players were so outclassed in Italy it seemed like they just had really great tickets. Four years later on home soil, hope emerged when the Americans survived group play and put up a valiant fight against Brazil in a 1-0 defeat in the knockout round.

After three straight humiliating losses in France in 1998, the team moved forward again with a run to the quarterfinals in 2002 in Japan/South Korea. But the drama of that 1-0 loss to Germany in the quarterfinals—a match the U.S. nearly won—took place half a world away in the middle of the night for many of us. It also happened before the first generation of Americans raised with the game had grown to have soccer-mad children of their own.

See how the tournament would play out if 32 countries were competing in things other than soccer: The World Cup of Everything Else.

Six goals and what they show about team strategy: National Teams’ Styles

There would be another setback in 2006, when the Americans left the World Cup in Germany with a single point. Then, once again, a sign of progress in South Africa in 2010 when the U.S. topped a group that included England and seemed headed for a showdown with a beatable Uruguay team in the quarterfinals—only to see Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan rocket home a winner in extra time in the round of 16.

Still, the U.S. took some comfort in its performance, especially after

Landon Donovan‘s

last-minute goal against Algeria in the third group-stage game saved the U.S. from elimination.

That won’t be the experience this time around. Interest in this team is approaching Olympic proportions. The idea that nearly 25 million people might tune in to watch the U.S. men play a group-stage World Cup game—as they did on Sunday for the Portugal match—would have seemed absurd just a few years ago. The world-beating U.S. women can captivate the country in a World Cup or Olympic final, but the men have never been able to draw crowds to watch their games on big screens in city parks they way they have this year.

Sunil Gulati,

president of U.S. Soccer, said the Germany match was undoubtedly the biggest for the country “simply because there are so many more people paying attention.” Gulati also suggested if the U.S. does get eliminated, “it won’t necessarily be seen as a failure, but rather an opportunity we didn’t grab.”

Memo to Gulati: The ship has sailed on critical World Cup losses being characterized as something other than failure. And that is a good thing. The last-second Portugal goal that kept the U.S. from clinching a round-of-16 spot was a baseball bat to the stomach. The bruise it will leave will grow immeasurably if the U.S. journey in Brazil ends Thursday. With love comes grief.

It is the great fortune of American soccer fans to finally be able to experience that range of emotions—the rising hopes and the sickening knowledge of what it might feel like to fall short in this game. “We’re just looking forward to it,” said defender Fabian Johnson.

Tens of millions of American fans are looking forward to it, too. How they feel afterward is anyone’s guess.

Write to Matthew Futterman at matthew.futterman@wsj.com