Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today, a recap of that amazing USA 1–0 win over Algeria.
There is only one headline that fits this story: Holy fucking shit. As the minutes ticked slowly off in the U.S. national team’s gut-wrenching, nail-biting, hair-pulling, name-your-adjectival-phrase-because-I’m-way-too-emotionally-spent-to-continue game versus Algeria, I was sitting on my bar stool at Jack Demsey’s on 33rd Street, surrounded by hundreds of otherwise sensible New Yorkers wearing flags as capes/hats/bandannas, absolutely fixated on the clock. Time was our enemy, and I was trying to reconcile how I was going to deal with the emotions of what seemed likely to happen. Team USA was going to go home despite winning — WINNING! — two games that were stolen by referees. I was already angry at the idea that I was going to have to complain for eons about having a World Cup stolen by officiating, and I don’t think there is anyone on Earth who isn’t related to a player for Algeria or Slovenia who would have argued. And yet … that just happened.
Allow me a second to compose myself. Now …
Okay, thanks. When I left 33rd street there were hundreds of people singing patriotic songs while men leaned out office windows waving flags. Cars stopped and honked along to USA chants. Seriously. That happened. Over soccer.
I don’t give a flying fuck how you feel about the ties, and the dives, and the mysterious extra time: If that game did not make you erupt in spontaneous joy and hug the first person you encountered, then something is very wrong with you. That was as exciting as a sporting event can be, and I would immediately rank it among the greatest sports moments in U.S. history.
Yes, I hear you. It was only the first round. But that hardly matters. Because Koman Coulibaly stole a game, and England had just beaten Slovenia, this was a must-win, lose-and-you-go-home game that the U.S. had to win. It is exactly the kind of game that we never win. And yet we did. In stoppage time. After having a goal stolen from us — again! — and then missing chance after chance, the American team pressed like a team with a chip on its shoulder (wonder why that could be?) and kept probing a defense that was bending — oh, boy, was it bending — but not breaking.
I will applaud the back three of the Algerian team and then stop there, because the rest of that team’s effort was shameful. They played for a 0–0 tie in a game they too had to win, and when the U.S. was clearly picking them to pieces they began to foul. And then bitch. And then, well, finally karma came around. For once. (Though I’d say we still have plenty in the bank.) And the one guy even non-soccer fans know, the guy whose jersey you’re going to see a lot of around town between now and this Saturday, the guy who played only a so-so game to that point, saved us. Landon Donovan — pretty much inarguably the greatest American player of all time — followed a shot that Clint Dempsey appeared to botch, as Deuce did so many times in this game, and cleanly, unspectacularly slotted home a goal. He then did what I think any of us would have done in that moment: He sprinted to the corner and belly flopped like a kid on a Slip n’ Slide.
It is always irrational to get happy and sad and disappointed and ecstatic over strangers playing a game over which we have no influence, but such is the magic of sports that it does this to us. Did I really just write “magic of sports”? I did. I’m sorry. I’m emotional. And I don’t know how else to describe it. I shouldn’t care and yet I couldn’t care more. The thing about the World Cup is that it’s exponentially bigger than your average game because patriotism — good, old-fashioned I-love-my-country patriotism, free of politics — magnifies every emotion, so that a moment like this seems far bigger than it actually is.
I got about 350 texts in the minutes after Donovan scored the goal and then my cell service cut out as the 500 other dudes in American jerseys and hats all sent texts to their friends, as did the people in the offices around us, and the cell towers couldn’t keep up. I heard from friends, co-workers, family members, just about everyone I expected and plenty I didn’t. I left the bar literally shaking and it was awesome.
Now, we have only three days to regain our senses and get ready for the next Biggest Game Ever. The good news about winning our group — we won our group, by the way, something no American team had ever done — is that the U.S. goes to the friendliest side of the draw. Our next game won’t be easy (as we’ve now seen, what World Cup game is?), but I’d much rather play Ghana or Serbia (or maybe Germany) than Spain, or Brazil, or Holland, or Argentina. And if I may get pie-eyed for a second and look past that a little bit, who looms ahead? The winner of South Korea–Uruguay. And beyond that is the semifinals. Dare we dream?
I tend to hate the simple clichés attached to the American team, that we are scrappy, and gutty — a team of fearless hustle guys. (I am on record many times, in fact, as a man who hates the Craig Counsells and Dustin Pedroias of the world.) It’s pedantic euphemism; it’s a compliment people pay to teams that have little else to offer. But I’m warming a little to how those clichés apply to Team USA. It has skill, and the ability to score, and a tactical strength (at times) that we’ve lacked in the past. And on top of that — yes, okay — I think we are gritty and gutty and tough.
Adversity ruins teams. (Hello, France!) But adversity seems to be Team USA’s primary motivator. That isn’t exactly ideal, but it sure is exciting. I just don’t know if I can survive another game.
A couple of other things. The debate has already begun over how this ranks among wins in U.S.-soccer history. I can’t see how it isn’t on top. Yes, the upset over England in 1950 was one for the ages, but that was a fluke. And the win over Mexico in the Round of 16 in 2002 was amazing, but we beat the Mexicans all the time in qualifying. And the upsets of Portugal in 2002 and Colombia in 1994 were surprising, but those were opening matches, and as many teams now know, the opener is important, but not really critical. This one meant everything. And it went down to the wire — past the wire — and we did it despite getting jobbed by referees and facing missed chance after missed chance. It was a March Madness buzzer-beater plus a bottom-of-the-ninth home run with a touch of overtime 63-yard field goal to boot.
Michael Bradley won’t be on many highlights, but you can easily make a case that he’s our MVP. The kid is everywhere, on offense and defense, and unlike so many players, he never looks bothered, no matter how many players are racing at him. His touch has softened and his vision is as good as anyone’s, excepting Donovan. If both of these guys aren’t playing for top clubs next year, it’s a crime.
And while we’re talking about Bradleys, I have to hand it to Bob. Watching his team blow chance after chance, while the Algerians put nine men behind the ball, apparently playing for a tie that would get them nothing, Bradley threw everything he had on the field. By game’s end, Team USA was playing three strikers and four attacking midfielders, including one playing fullback. We played exciting soccer from start to finish. It was great.
Finally, my prediction was right. I called 2–0. And that was the score. Except that the ref stole a goal. (For the second-straight game.) But we are past that! I’m sorry to bring it up. (Again.)
On to Saturday. I need a beer. USA!