Wednesday, June 23, 2010

US v Algeria!

This was one of the great moments in US Soccer history.

Certainly the biggest since WC 2002.  Bigger than the over-hyped England draw.  Bigger than Bradley's goal vs Slovenia because that was marred by the Mali ref (and because that merely kept us alive).  Bigger even than beating Spain in the Confed Cup (which I state hesitantly) simply because this was in the WC.  This allowed the joyous release of emotion and indignation that pent up across the country since the disallowed goal from the last match.  In many ways, the injustice of that call brought more attention to the team than they would've received had they won.  Yes an epic comeback would have been celebrated, but nothing outrages Americans more than being cheated out of what we rightfully earned by sweat and blood.  Subsequently, the Algerian match brought 90 minutes of close calls and more injustice, which only added to the emotion of the moment.  So Landon's goal instantly became the most memorable moment of our generation.  (2 friends told me minutes after the game that they became US soccer fans.  Instantly.  Not casual fans either - when these two become a fan, they become A FAN.)

For the first 85 minutes, I was confident that we would score on one of those chances and win.  How unlucky could we get?  Herculez all by himself, missing with only the keeper to beat.  A Dempsey goal called back.  Landon and Jozy both swinging at the ball and skying it (Landon should've let Jozy take it).  DeMerit's header over the top.  Dempsey's shot off the inside of the post and subsequent rebound miss on a open net.  Buddle's header right at the keeper.  Bradley's ferocious free kick, again at the keeper.  Feilhaber's faulty pass to the keeper.  By the 86th minute, I began pacing uncontrollably.  How could this happen?  How could the last 4 years of anticipation die a painful death as this?  Winning this game was supposed to be destiny.  A place in the knockout round BELONGED to us.  It was OWED to us.  The last few minutes of regulation, we had a mini lull and couldn't mount much of an attack.  It really was the first time all game that I started to worry.

I looked at my friend (the only US fan friend that I've really had for the last 8 years and seen all the games with, the one I went to Deutschland '06 with, the one I would've gone to SA with had we not both recently become fathers) and we wondered how incredible an injury time goal would be.  I must admit it wasn't confidence.  It was just wishful thinking.  My mind had already started to go numb in horror.  Even as we spoke of it, there's no way we could have conceived how big that moment would be. 

How insane is the World Cup?  Had we not scored, the past 4 year cycle would have been deemed a failure.  Yes, we could argue that we were robbed, twice, but the facts would remain that we didn't win a game in the group stage again.  Again, we couldn't deliver when the chips were down in the do or die last game.  There would probably be wholesale coaching changes again and perhaps even a philosophy shift in US Soccer.  The victory over Spain last year would be viewed a fluke.  We would sink into the abyss of a soccer wannabe nation for another 4 years.  We would've lost much of the US support we've earned since last summer.  Landon Donovan and our other stars would be viewed as players who were once again unable to perform and deliver on the biggest stage.  It would have been doomsday.

With just one goal, everything changes.  We won the group, which we have never done before in the modern age.  Instead of not being able to win a game, we can now say that didn't lose match in the group stage for the first time ever, and should have won twice.  Bob Bradley's tenure is deemed a huge success and our players' dedication and hard work is venerated across the country.  Our players will likely receive worldwide attention and perhaps transfer opportunities to better clubs, bigger stages.  Also, instead of playing Germany and Argentina should we advance, we now face Ghana and the winner of Uruguay/Korea, should we advance.

Our WC has been perfect so far.  We thought we had a great chance to advance.  It was expected.  But no one expected the drama that would ensue to get there.  A dramatic howler/goal vs England.  A massive 2nd half comeback and then THAT call.  Then a nail-biting, heart-stopping match capped by an injury-time game-winner, group-winner, career-saver, program-turner, nation-enthraller and international stage moment- grabber.  What really manifested itself through this groups stage was our team's heart.

Why do I love this team?  Because we're not a team of egos.  Because we know we're not one of the elites in the world and before this month, our team wasn't even respected in our own country.  Because we still play like underdogs.  Because we have a never say die attitude.  Because we're not the most technically skilled but we run and work for 90 minutes.  Because we're not dirty and we don't dive.  We play the right way, the American way.  And now, because we win.

Players - everyone gets as 10 on this one.

Donovan - Biggest moment of his life.  He finally delivered on the biggest stage with the pressure (and blame) on his shoulders.

Howard - Clean sheet.  Grabbed that dangerous Algerian header in extra time and threw it 50 yards to Landon's streaking feet.  His throw was as big a factor to our goal as any other.

Dempsey - fought and battled all game.  Unlucky to score several times but he was huge factor in our goal.

Altidore - Most beat up 20 year old in soccer right now as he is a foul-drawing machine.  Now he just needs to score.

Bradley - Slowly becoming one of my favorite players.  Hard-nosed, run-all-day and intelligent on the ball.

Edu - subbed at half after solid effort.  Still, Clark didn't play so he could see 90 minutes vs Ghana.

Cherundolo - 3rd straight GREAT game.

DeMerit - After a shaky start including a whiff that led to a dangerous chance for Algeria, he settled down.

Bocanegra - Didn't notice any mistakes in Gooch's place.

Bornstein - As US fans everywhere hoped there wouldn't be a Bornstein gaffe to cost us, he acquitted himself well.  As a fellow Bruin, I'm glad he had a good showing.  Gooch was the surprise omission but since he had a hand in all 3 allowed goals, it made sense.  Perhaps he'll be rested for Sat.

Gomez - Solid half.  Missed good chances but should've had an assist.


Feilhaber - I wish he shot instead of trying to pass it in front of the keeper.  Didn't he see Maicon's goal?

Buddle - Looked to me to be a little slow in decision making, but he did get a header on goal.

Beasley - yellow-carded for handball.  I'm just glad he got on the field this WC.

Bob Bradley has become a major story as well.  For about 10 minutes vs Slovenia, he threw caution to the wind and only played 3 defenders in the back, essentially a 3-4-3 until Bradley scored.  He had brought Gooch out and subbed in Gomez.  Same thing vs Algeria, he brought out Bornstein and Beasley played on the left wing.  As much as the critics slam Bradley on his conservative philosophy, he got his tactics right in both games.  We pressed, got the goals, and returned to our 4-4-2.

I admit that I'm worried about the match vs Ghana.  The US is physically and emotionally spent after that match and they only have 2 days rest.  They even had a party after returning to home base.  Ghana lost to Germany their last match so they are naturally going to find it easier to be more locked in, more focused than us.  In many ways, our biggest goal was to get out of the group.  Unlike the world powers like Brazil, anything we accomplish from here on out is gravy.  I think its dangerous to have that mindset in addition to not having enough time to recuperate.  Ultimately, it could really hurt us as fatigue could hit us in the 70th minute or so.  That said, I think that no one is as fit as us.  Also, we are much deeper than Ghana who started the same 9 players in all 3 matches - Gooch, Clark, Findley, Holden, Gomez and Torres are all capable starters that will be fresh for Sat.  We also have Beasley, Buddle, Spector and Goodson if necessary as well.

Lastly, there's a redemption factor here.  We needed a victory over Essien's Black Stars in 2006 and came up painfully short.  They scored 2 goals, first off a freak accident to Reyna and then a bad call on Gooch which resulted in a penalty right before half.  Unable to score the 2 goals needed to advance in the 2nd half, we went home disappointed.  I'm sure Donovan, Dempsey, Gooch, Boca and others will use that memory as motivation for Saturday.

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