Phew. That was the biggest emotional roller coaster of game that the U.S. National Team has ever put me through. The game against Slovenia had the emotional impact of a come-from-behind win. Last year’s Confederation’s Cup had the mustard seed of hope in the breakthrough game against Egypt, the rush of the surprise victory against Spain, and the outrageous dream and then crushing reality of facing Brazil. The Nats have regularly put me through the tension of coming from behind or blowing an early lead. But this game against Algeria, it was something completely different. Against Germany in 2002 comes closest, but it didn’t have the payoff. First, the stakes don’t get any higher than the World Cup. Second, there’s something about a 0-0 scoreline that builds tension like a high scoring game can’t. Each goal in a back-and-forth goalfest is a body-blow in a heavy weight boxing match. It’s exciting, but you know the punches are coming and you know you’ll be able to return them. But a back-and-forth game that hovers at 0-0 is a duel. You have to be on guard constantly because the first blow struck will likely be the last, piecing you or your opponent to the heart. Each fast break, each defensive stop, each shot on goal is like reaching the top of a hill on the roller coaster without any idea how far the drop is going to be. I was in and out of my seat, yelling at the TV, holding my head in my hands and on pins and needles the whole time. It was a game that promised everything you wanted and everything that you feared at the same time, teased you with it, let you taste it even, but withheld it until you thought that fulfillment was impossible. And then, when you had resigned yourself to being unfulfilled, in the dying moments it exploded with joy. Jabluani, indeed.
At about the 80th minute, I was preparing this post in my head, but it was going to be the disgruntled, self-reflective one. Sure, I was going to say, we can lament another bogus call and another perfectly good goal called off. But, I would continue, we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves. A ref can blow a call, but they don’t really cost you the game. I played enough basketball in high school to learn that one good. Hitting the ball off the post instead of into the back of the net costs you the game. Skying the ball into the air instead of slamming it home costs you the game. Taking low percentage shots instead of passing the ball to the open man costs you the game. Clearing the ball into the path of your opponent (Jonathan Bornstein) costs you the game. All this I was going to say because all of these things were things that we did. Thank you Landon Donovan for keeping my mouth shut.
In the end, we pulled it out. On another gilt-edged chance the keeper stopped a shot that surely should have gone in and Donovan swept in like avenging angel out of an empty sky. You knew he was going to strike true. He had to. But just for a millisecond there was a tickle of doubt in your mind. So many missed chances. Dempsey’s ball off the post. It just might not really be our day. His foot struck the ball. For one time it flew true. For one time it was dead on target. For one time no defender’s leg shot out to block it. The net bulged and Algeria deflated. Fears that fate was set against us disintegrated. Suddenly, all was right with the world and all sins were forgiven.
On a less emotional note…
Bob Bradley made the right tactical decisions to start the game. (Do I still say this if we hadn’t won?) We needed speed against Algeria and Bocanegra and Bornstein provided that where Onyewu and Bocanegra couldn’t. He also made (what turned out to be) the right substitutions. Bringing on Feilhaber freed up Dempsey to roam for the whole second half, putting more pressure on their defense, but also more pressure on our defense. Bringing in Buddle for Edu added even more offensive potency, but essentially put all of our midfield defensive responsibilities solely on Michael Bradley. He was more than up to the task. Bringing in Beasley for Bornstein that late in the game was essentially a straight defense for offense swap that left us with a three man back line. We bent, but didn’t break. At times we got lucky. Gutsy, but exactly what was needed. (Do I still say that if we hadn’t won?)
So, now we’re through to the knock out round. First in our group for the first time since 1930. After a crazy pair of matches to sort out Group D we found out that that we’ll be playing Ghana on Saturday and if we win we’ll face either Uruguay or South Korea. How awesome is that? England is going to have to fight their way to the semi-finals through Germany and then, most likely Argentina. Thanks, Slovenia, for giving us the motivation to score two goals against you.