Friday, July 30, 2010

Team USA Advances Past the Group Round in 2010 World Cup

From True/Slant on June 23, 2010:

Team USA Saves Best for Last.

I admit it. I had my first, honest to goodness, moment of pure soccer elation when Landon Donovan scored the winning goal for Team USA in extra time. It was legit. I was jumping and screaming and hugging. It was as joyous as it was unexpected.

I set myself to a task – to watch every game of World Cup action – to see if I could embrace, or at least understand what all the vuvuzela honking was about. I learned that soccer is a slow burn. I was skeptical. I was bored. I was restless. But the more I watched, the more I didn’t mind watching. It was okay, I thought. Not great, but okay.

And then a weird thing happened. I started to look forward to matches. I was reading about different teams and watching the highlights to learn what I could from the commentary. I emailed a soccer expert buddy of mine to have her explain the ever slippery soccer off-sides rule. (So much more convoluted that off-sides in hockey, let me just say.)

Last night, I was twitchy in anticipation of the game this morning. Who the hell was I? I didn’t know. I didn’t even care. It was fun. I gave into it.

Yeah, yeah. I know. New to the sport. Bandwagon jumper. Neophyte. All of those dubious honorifics probably apply to me. I’ll own that. And yet … when Donovan netted the winner, it was genuinely euphoric, ecstatic and, yes, karmic payback, you FIFA officiating beeyotches.

It’s not just us annoying Yanks who have been complaining about the officiating. It is everywhere. Try doing a google search of “world cup officiating controversies” and you get about 30 pages of hits in as many languages. Handballs have been missed, egregious fouls have been missed, seemingly good goals have been waved off without explanation, and non-existent fouls have garnered cards of both the red and yellow variety.

Team Brazil is without their best player – Kaka – because of a phantom foul when Kader Keita of the Ivory Coast kinda brushed up against Kaka and then went down like Amy Winehouse after a long night full of jagerbombs. This phantom infraction earned Kaka a second yellow card for the match and thus, he is DQ’ed from playing against Portugal on Saturday.

To pour salt on the myriad officiating wounds, the refs themselves are shrouded in secrecy, protected from the media, and insulated from the real world. In short, they operate a lot like the Roman Catholic Church, or the International Olympic Committee, for that matter, with zero transparency and just as much accountability. The only group more getting worse press than the officials is Team France and you don’t need to be a lifelong fan of the English Premiere League to know that something is rotten in South Africa — the officiating.

But let’s not linger over what is wrong, but rather what is right. What is right is the American Cardiac Kids for the 21st century. Up against the wall because of the debatable draw versus Slovenia, and certainly well aware that England was hanging on to a 1-0 lead over Slovenia, the U.S. knew that a draw versus Algeria would not be enough to propel them past the round of group play. A win was essential. (Advancing on a draw would have been so less than satisfying anyway.)

They dug in and mounted scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity, but it seemed the goal, the one elusive goal, just would not come. Donovan was very quiet for much of the game. Herculez Gomzez missed the goal. Jozy Altidore missed the goal. Edson Buddle missed the goal. Clint Dempsey missed the goal. Michael Bradley hit a beauty, but right into the belly of the Algerian keeper, M’Bolhi. Hell, it seemed like the entire team missed the goal at one point or another.

But they kept coming. And coming. Tim Howard and Carlos Bocanegra held down the fort, making every necessary defensive play and save to keep the hope alive. These guys love to score late. In 18 qualifying games, they scored 10 goals in the last 10 minutes of regulation play and in their game against Slovenia, Bradley netted the tying goal in the 82nd minute.

It was fitting that it wasn’t until the extra time that their relentless pursuit paid off. Howard made a garden variety save, looked up the pitch, spied Donovan and winged the ball up to him. Donovan, the face of American soccer, streaked down field, fed the ball to Altidore, and then moved across the goal to be in position to blast in the rebound of Dempsey’s shot for the game winner.

Is this time — the 91st minute of play in the final game of group play — the exact moment when the USA crashed the rest of the world’s party?

Time will tell, but this is a team hitting every soft spot that we as a nation have. Americans love come backs. We love underdogs. While as a nation, we are rarely underdogs, but if ever we are, it’s on the soccer pitch.

An underdog team staging improbable victory against all odds in the waning moments — how much more American can you get?

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