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Friday, June 18, 2010
Reasons to be cheerful if you're American

10:15 a.m. Somewhere in the Hollywood Hills.

The headlines will scream about the referee, others will call this draw another win, and the U.S. team and media will commit to a narrative on this game that is bound to be about the heart and spirit of the U.S. team. What a comeback! Punched in the nose! An unfair decision cost us a win.

(And that's pretty much the narrative that Landon Donovan stuck to in his postmatch interview.)

And this is all incontrovertibly true. But for the U.S. to mature as a soccer nation, one feels that there also has to be a forthright acknowledgement of another reality. The U.S. conceded two very soft first-half goals to the tiny, but dragon-filled, nation of Slovenia. The first-half performance was abysmal. At this level, you rarely get away with that. And if the U.S. is going to improve, the media now has to treat it like a European nation would treat its own team after this performance -- no excuses, you conceded two goals to Slovenia, you simply cannot put yourself in those positions and expect to win many games at the World Cup of WiffleSoccerParity.

(And bravo to Alexi Lalas, as that was pretty much his final verdict on the match on ESPN.)

However, and it's a BIG HOWEVER, here are nine reasons for the U.S. to be very cheerful about after this match.

1. The goal from Michael Bradley was huge. With one point from two games, the U.S. would have been dead. With two, it's very much alive -- and now in control of its own destiny after Algeria tied England. I believe that it's the goal that will keep the U.S. in this World Cup. More than that, there is finally another player on the U.S. team who has scored a goal at a World Cup other than Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. And if the Americans are going to proceed far in this tournament, they need other players to step up.

2. Donovan played an outstanding 90 minutes. He is class. He really is. Impeccable service from every set piece, every cross, every pass. He reads the game, he can run, he can shoot, he can score. And what a goal. There is nothing like walloping it into the roof of the net. Or so I hear.

3. Jozy Altidore finally played like Emile Heskey. This is not an insult. I repeat, this is not an insult. Altidore is a big, physical striker who has to hold up the ball and terrorize defenders with his strength. Finally, in the second half, he resembled his English soul mate.

4. We have now surely seen the last Jeremy Schaap report on Tim Howard's ribs. Howard looked fine, no outstanding saves, a little static perhaps on Birsa's goal in the first half. But he was an agile mountain in the box from crosses and set pieces.

5. Understatement: The U.S. was treated very harshly by the referee. Though Dempsey was perhaps somewhat fortunate not to be carded in the first minute of the match for an elbow to the head of Bostjan Cesar (I have often seen people straight red-carded for similar challenges), decision after decision went against them in this match. Robbie Findley's card for a handball and, of course, the disallowed Maurice Edu goal, which is being hailed around the world as a legendarily bad decision, certainly stand out.

This was true before England's dire draw against Algeria, but it is even more true now.

6. The U.S. could even finish atop the group. There are many scenarios, but simply put, a win against Algeria would give the U.S. five points. And finishing second might be even better with Germany's loss to Serbia.

7. You are not England. England's performance against Algeria was so poor, it actually made me nostalgic for England's appalling performance against the U.S.

8. You do not have the English press, which will absolutely massacre England and Don Fabio. You have Jeremy Schaap. And he seems very nice indeed.

9. Your players actually look like they like each other and are having fun. England, on the other hand? I have never seen a more joyless group of players in my life. They are having no fun. It's no fun watching them.

It's amazing, this game. The U.S. and England have both played two games and both have two points. And yet, the U.S. will go to bed full of optimism and self-belief and England, one feels, will be drifting off just wanting to go home. One also feels that it may well get its wish.

And today's Daily Pants? They're bright yellow, FIFA logo-emblazoned Alladin Pants. And they'll look fantastic on Malian referee Koman Coulibaly. Ironically, he was born on the Fourth of July.