In a slightly downbeat piece in the Week, Matt Lewis suggested Wednesday that conservatives are a lot like Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper who set a new World Cup record for saves in Tuesday's match between the U.S. and Belgium.

“The fact that a goalkeeper would have to deliver such a heroic performance is indicative of an American team that was constantly playing defense, while Belgium was taking all the shots,” Lewis observed – and quite accurately, in soccer terms.

He compared this to an inherent disadvantage conservatives supposedly face. “[T]he very nature of conservatism involves playing defense and trying to preserve the status quo,” he wrote. “Progressives, on the other hand, are on offense. They want to expand government, make new laws, offer new benefits, and overhaul the status quo. They are attacking our net.”

The analogy holds up well in some areas of politics - same-sex marriage being the best current example. But overall, the highlights tell the story of a more complicated game.

William F. Buckley invoked an Image similar to Lewis' 59 years ago, in the inaugural issue of National Review. The new publication, he noted, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Writing in 1955, Buckley observed that “literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” He saw his age as one of liberal conformity, with the political Right diffuse and disorganized, afflicted by both its own “irresponsible” elements and the “well-fed Right” of the establishment, whose “ignorance and amorality” he described as infinite.

This probably all sounds familiar. Yet even in this manifesto, Buckley was not nearly as pessimistic as his famous "athwart history" quotation suggests. He described conservatism as “a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of Ph.D's in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.”

And that they were. What probably seemed a much more hopeless battle in 1955 has since changed direction, thanks in part to his efforts. Younger conservatives probably don't appreciate that many things used to be worse before conservatives got their act together. In the time since, America has either abandoned or is slowly walking back many bad liberal ideas adopted during our parents' and grandparents' day.

In my lifetime, both the laws and public opinion have shifted noticeably away from formerly sacrosanct liberal ideas: the right to abortion on demand, capricious, ineffective laws restricting gun ownership, no-strings-attached cash welfare programs, and 70 percent top marginal income tax rates (or 90 percent when Buckley was writing).

Scott Walker's reforms in Wisconsin, to whatever extent they catch on, endanger the Left's already-diminished ability to feast on taxpayers. Supreme Court decisions (including Harris v. Quinn this week) are freeing workers from the indignity of paying for workplace representatives they neither asked for nor want, and for their unions' left-wing political causes. New right-to-work laws in Indiana and Michigan continue the nation's slow march away from poorly conceived labor legislation from the New Deal era.

This list could be longer - and there have been many setbacks as well - but you get the point. Conservatives are on defense, and perhaps being outplayed, but they are also scoring goals and undermining advantages in their opponents' game. Like the U.S. team - which came within one touch of winning Tuesday's game in the 90th minute - they are at least creating enough scoring opportunities to keep hope alive.

DAVID FREDDOSO, a Washington Examiner columnist, is the former Editorial Page Editor for the Examiner and the New York Times-bestselling author of "Spin Masters: How the Media Ignored the Real News and Helped Re-elect Barack Obama." He has also written two other books, "The Case Against Barack Obama" (2008) and "Gangster Government" (2011).