Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Agony, Turned to Ecstasy

You may not like soccer. You may have looked at the title of this post and saw the picture of Landon Donovan and turned away. You may still be trying to figure out why the tie against England was such a big deal and how a 2-2 tie and 1-0 victory could be even remotely exciting. But if you have put your stubborn ways aside and followed the journey of the American Men's Soccer team, you have really been watching some of the greatest spectacle in sport. I'm not going to proclaim that this World Cup is going to change the opinions of soccer in America, because if you're not on board yet you probably never will be. But if you are, you are watching quite a show.

After a glorious tie against the mother country and a tie against Slovenia that brought forth mixed emotions, the United States found themselves still in control of their destiny in their final game of group play. Nevermind the fact that the United States had never so much as earned a point in their final game of the qualifying rounds, they needed nothing less than a full three points as a result of a victory if they were to advance. Cue the drama of a matchup with the stingy Algerians.

If you saw the game, you're well aware of just how many perfect chances the United States had to score. Usually in a game you get a handful of chances, but none as close and as perfect as what you saw from the Americans on this fateful Wednesday morning. Clint Dempsey hitting shots off the post, Jozy Altidore missing wide open shots, Edson Buddle failing to put enough heat on a pass in front of the goal mouth, perfectly shot balls by Herculez Gomez and Michael Bradley finding the keeper's hands instead of the netting - no matter what the U.S. tried to do in this game, they just couldn't bury one.

Until the 91st minute.

At this point in the game, it was already over in my opinion. The USA was going to go home with three ties, never losing in this World Cup but never doing enough to advance. A loss meant that everything would seemingly go back to "normal". People would wonder why we make such a big deal out of soccer if this is the end result. Diehard soccer fans would feel like they've wasted their investment. How was it that we were actually going to leave this game without a goal? This was an Algerian team that still had a chance to advance to the round of 16, yet throughout the entire game it had seemed as if they were playing for a tie. You can argue their goal was to strike to a quick counter attack, but their lazy approach on the attack, in my opinion, was the second biggest disgrace of this tournament (I'll let you know what the first one was later).

But despite all of the odds they were up against, Tim Howard started a sequence that culminated in another missed opportunity for the Americans, only this time Landon Donovan was there to turn agony into ecstasy. He buried the shot, ran to the corner flag, and the American piled on each other in a moment where you could literally see all of their frustration bottle out of them. The Americans knew at this moment they had won the game, they had won their group, and they were on to the next stage of the World Cup.

It's been an improbable two weeks for this team, but somehow, after everything, they won their World Cup group for the first time ever. From keeper Rob Green's blunder, to the comeback that should have been a victory against Slovenia, to the 91st Minute Miracle from Landon Donovan, each game they have played in as somehow been more nerve racking than the last. And then group play culminated in the most improbable of victories, and the US move on.

For me, as a life long soccer fan, things definitely reached their apex today. I was joyous during the 2002 World Cup run, but with all the attention that this team is getting this year, I can't say there has ever been a bigger moment - from the perspective of how this country views this sport and this team - than today. The feelings I've felt during this game I've only felt a handful of times before. A feeling where I feel like everything is at stake and a loss would be totally unacceptable. The joy I felt Wednesday as a sports fan can only be shared with a few occasions - the Packers Super Bowl victory, the Brewers clinched the playoffs for the first time in 26 years, Favre choking against the Saints, and the night I somehow won a dart tournament at a work function (jk lol). Just an unbelievable game in every facet.

But the question is now, is the best yet to come? The Americans did themselves a lot of favors by winning the group, as their next game is against Ghana, rather than Germany. Ghana is no slouch, but you can bet guys like Landon Donovan will be looking for revenge after they ended our run in the 2006 World Cup. Also, if we win that game we have the winner of South Korea vs. Uruguay, which I feel will be the weakest game in the initial stages of the knockout round. It's very conceivable that with this draw the American might be able to find themselves in the semifinals of this tournament, something that would literally make my head explode. Fact of the matter is though that we have done what we needed to do, this tournament is already a success. But there is so much more that could be done, and the prospect of that has me about as excited as ever.

God Bless the USA.

Quick hits on the other games:

England 1, Slovenia 0

After all the hoopla, it was England and the States that got out of the group after all. England scored in the 23rd minute on a shot that very well should have been blocked, but the Slovenian keeper was not up to the task. Actually, the whole Slovenian team wasn't up to the task, as it really was a disappointing day for them. After they gave up a goal, it was almost as if they were fine with losing 1-0 because they figured the United States would tie Algeria. In fact, when the final whistle blew on Slovenia's game, they thought they had advanced, but lo and behold the U.S. punched one in and Slovenia was out. Slovenia's lack of urgency was a bigger disgrace than Algeria's - just a weak showing on the final day by the two underdogs that could have really done some damage. Again, disgraceful to the game.

Germany 1, Ghana 0

Hey, lookie here - an African team has advanced out of group play. Ghana, despite the loss, got a lot of help from Australia and still were able to advance even though they fell to a rebounding German team. Good for them. Next up for Germany, a match against the rivals England.

Australia 2, Serbia 1

Last night we played mini-golf in Oshkosh and I lead for sixteen holes, only to come up with six strokes on hole 17 and four strokes on hole 18. I choked, hard. Well, Serbia choked about 500 times more than that, which is a bit refreshing for me. Thanks for playing.


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