Never have I been so happy I woke up spontaneously at 8 AM. It meant I could watch the US take on Algeria in their final round-robin game. Coming into the game, the US needed either a win or a draw and an English draw or loss to advance out of the pool and get to the Round of 16. With England taking an early lead against Slovenia (who only needed a US loss to get to the next round, and so probably did not play very hard once they fell behind), it became clear that nothing short of an American victory would assure them a spot in the elimination rounds. The stakes were high, and the American players responded.
Algeria nearly took a lead in the first few minutes, but their shot bounced off the crossbar of the goal. In the 21st minute, Clint Dempsey scored off a rebounded shot, and it looked like this would be an easy victory for the US, as they were dominating offensively. Unfortunately, the goal was rescinded on a dubious off-sides call. This was the second such call in two games for the Americans, the first costing them a victory against Slovenia that would’ve guaranteed their advancement a game earlier. Two blown calls (plus what I’m sure has been several incidents in games I didn’t watch) in a row raises serious questions about the quality of the referees FIFA has put out for this World Cup. Off-sides is a complicated rule, but at that level refs must understand it to a t and remember that, when the ref isn’t sure, tie goes to the team on offense.
The bad luck continued for the Americans through the half and late into the second half. Clint Dempsey once again had a scoring opportunity in the 57th minute, this time off a Jozy Altidore cross, but his shot went off the far post and he could not put the rebound away either. A number of other scoring opportunities also went for naught, as every shot (22 total, 10 on goal) seemed to go wide or right at the goalkeeper. Needing two goals to advance, Algeria put on a few offensive displays themselves, but thankfully all of their shots went wide or were blocked by goalie extraordinaire Tim Howard.
As the game went on, it looked more and more like the Americans were going to suffer the dubious honor of never losing in pool play and yet failing to advance. Their play got more desperate. They substituted offensive players for defensive ones. And they opened themselves up to more attacks from Algeria. Things were looking grim. Then, 45 seconds into injury time of the second half, lightning struck. Goalkeeper Tim Howard collected an Algerian shot and rolled it up to Landon Donovan, who tore up the sideline with the ball. He then passed the ball off to Jozy Altidore, who crossed it to hard-luck shooter Clint Dempsey for a quick strike. The ball hit the Algerian goalie (followed shortly by Dempsey) and rolled free. Landon Donovan streaked in and buried it in the lower left corner of the net from seven yards out. With three minutes left in the game, the Americans took a 1-0 lead, and the stands erupted. Donovan dived for the corner pole in celebration. His teammates and staff mobbed him soon after. With the curtain nearly drawn on the Americans’ World Cup dream, Donovan had finally done what no one had been able to do: score a goal. The Americans won the game and the pool. It was their first pool victory since 1930.
Five players above all else deserve special mention. The first is forward Jozy Altidore. Although he didn’t score, he was constantly moving up the sidelines. He did a great job of setting up crosses and breaking away from the Algerian defense. Like a point guard in basketball, the offense seemed to run through him even though he wasn’t the one knocking down shots. The next player to mention is defender Jay DeMerit. He stabilized the American defense and was responsible for shutting down numerous Algerian offensive drives. Those that he couldn’t stop, goalie Tim Howard did. He is an absolute force in the net. The last two players to mention are Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. While Donovan scored the game-winner and put his name in the history books, Dempsey played excellent offense as well. He had numerous shots on goal, many of which involved breaking away from Algerian defenders who were not afraid to let their arms fly. Dempsey got hit in the face several times, once strong enough to draw blood, and yet no free kicks came his way. He plays with heart, and as long as he keeps shooting, the goals will start falling for him.
This game was a heart-pounder, to say the least. From a personal standpoint, the tension I felt came close to rivaling what I felt in the last few minutes of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It was seriously that intense. And it felt that way for ninety-plus minutes of game play. There was constant offense and defense. The ball was always moving. There were 41 shots on goal and 13 saves. Every near-miss pushed the lump a little higher up my throat. Everyone was on the edge of their seat, at home or in the stands. And when the ball finally went in, the stadium exploded. Soccer has as much potential for tension, energy, and big plays as any other sport. Those who deny themselves this sport on the grounds that it’s foreign or boring are simply missing out.