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Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Time to start believing, U.S. fans


Wednesday, 5 p.m., Hard Rock Cafe, Times Square

I could not sleep Tuesday night. The knowledge the two sides of my identity -- England, my birthplace, and America, my home -- would have their fates decided on the football pitch, the only place that really matters to me, was too much for my fragile composition to bear. A stressful condition was exacerbated to extreme levels come kickoff due to the bipolar, deeply unsatisfying experience of watching both games unfold on split-screen. While the workmanlike English jumped out to a 1-0 lead, the honest Americans were robbed of a perfectly good goal for the second consecutive game (Great zinger from Ian Darke: "No goals in this game ... ones that count anyway"), dispatching one shot after another straight toward the metallic purple shirt of the Algerian goalkeeper, as if magnetically attracted.

The lacerated tongues, bloodied jerseys and scuffed shots began to pile up. As the clock ticked down, I became overwhelmed by an out-of-body terror, aware that come injury time, I would have to face my "Sophie's Choice" moment and decide which of my teams to favor. Which of my children I would wish to live, and which I would allow to be eliminated from the World Cup finals.

One detail: I had the pleasure of watching the games with a gentleman whose son attends the University of Alabama and was heartened by the knowledge that even there, in the depths of Crimson Tide country, the epitome of tobacco-chewing American sports culture, every bar had opened early, packed with nascent soccer fans. An entire generation of students, weaned on the FIFA PlayStation franchise, now sampling the real thing. Seeing the games through their eyes, my choice became clear. If the Americans' fate was to whimper out of the tournament 0-0, victim of two World Wrestling Federation-worthy officiating calls, American soccer would be doomed to four long years of mockery and disregard. Recognizing this, I instantly doubled up on the U.S. and began to bellow for a Slovenian equalizer along with the Edson Buddle dribbler I had already been praying for.

Landon Donovan changed everything. His 91st-minute trailing run and shot ensured the game ended ecstatically. As Weezer's "Represent" blared in the American locker room, the U.S. national team topped its group, and now, in the clear-blue ocean of the elimination round, had become the most likable team in American sports. The noble tears gliding down Donovan's now-deified cheeks were a symbol of the cosmic nature of his goal, an immensity he appeared to grasp. "It makes me believe in good in the world, and when you try to do things the right way it's good to see them get rewarded," he said.

How far will our beloved United States progress? It is just four more wins away from the unthinkable. Answers to the following questions will go a long way to determining the team's fate.

WHY DOES THE UNITED STATES PLAY WELL ONLY WHEN ITS BACK IS AGAINST THE WALL?

For the life of me, I do not know. Leaking a fourth-minute goal against England, spotting a 2-0 lead to the Slovenians and now waiting until the 91st minute against the Algerians may play out well on "SportsCenter," but it will come back to bite the U.S. Let's try to mix it up a little and grab an early goal against Ghana.

WHY DO OPPONENTS PLAY UP AGAINST THE UNITED STATES?

One of the underreported storylines ahead of the U.S.-Algerian clash was the extent to which the Arab world was galvanized by the prospect of an American defeat. True or not, the negativity of the Algerian game plan suggested the Algerians had little desire to claim the win that could have carried them into the elimination round, perversely preferring to derive self-destructive pleasure from the knowledge that they could drag the U.S. out with them.

The Slovenian team that tied the U.S. was tactically robust and disciplined. Against England, it ambled aimlessly around the field as if a cornerstone had just been laid on a state-of-the-art headquarters for the Green Dragons Football Federation, built and paid for by the English FA. The magic of this tournament lies in the fact that what happens off the pitch is reinforced by economics, history and geopolitics off it. The U.S. is the world's sole superpower. It will have to be ready for every game to be akin to a final for its opponents from here on in.

WHY DO TELEVISION CAMERAS INSIST ON PICKING OUT THE WEIRDEST-LOOKING AMERICAN FANS?

Pick a team -- Slovakia, Serbia or North Korea, it matters not -- when the ball bounces out of bounds, the directors are guaranteed to turn to what pioneering ABC television sports director Andy Sidaris called the "honey shot": a cutaway to a stunning lady, most often a buxom blond, sure to thicken the blood of global viewers, irrespective of their mother tongue. The one exception is when the U.S. plays. Am I alone in believing the South African producers seem to derive a perverse delight from closing in on the saddest-looking American fans they can find, casting this great country of ours as a bedraggled bunch of saddies, ginger of hair, retainered of teeth, droopy of oversized hat, crying out for a footy-fan extreme makeover?

WHAT IS WITH THE OFFICIATING?

It was easy to swallow Koman Coulibaly's waving off the potential American comeback winner against Slovenia by persuading oneself the Malian is to refereeing what Robert Green is to the art of goalkeeping. But Wednesday's negation of Clint Dempsey's perfectly legitimate tap-in by match official Belgian Frank De Bleeckere made blown calls a pattern. Call me paranoid but this is beginning to register somewhere between World Wrestling Federation Sinister and 1972 USA-USSR Olympic Basketball Sinister.

WHO WILL PLAY SAINT LANDON IN THE UPCOMING BLOCKBUSTER BIOPIC?

Invisible for much of the game, he flipped the narrative on those who suggest he disappears when it matters. A Donovan Wheaties box appearance is a cert and a "From Landycakes to St. Landon" made-for-TV special has no doubt been commissioned already, be it in the offices of ABC or Lifetime. The only remaining question is, who has the thespian chops to star? Requirements: shortish, uncharismatic, awkward hairline. We thought Gyllenhaal, Maguire or Judah Friedlander. But thanks to @slimhandles for the Twitter suggestion that James Caviezel be cast and that the movie be scripted as a sequel to "The Passion of the Christ."

HOW FAR CAN THIS TEAM GO?

The United States did not just emerge from the group. It won it. And that may prove to be crucial. Runner-up England must now face its great rival Germany, and in the unlikely outcome that it is not eliminated in a penalty shootout, will meet the winner of Argentina-Mexico. The Americans will tackle Ghana, and, with a victory, the winner of Uruguay's clash with South Korea. Bob Bradley knows all three are organized teams that can threaten, but yet all are eminently beatable.

How should the Americans behave? Rule of thumb: The opposite of how England will. Watch in wonder as the English media go into overdrive and their narratives do a 180 from a doomsday scenario to the "Cup Is Surely Ours Now!" storyline. The U.S. must remain grounded. In this tournament, the teams that go deep are those that can overcome adversity (read: dodgy refereeing decisions), maintain their discipline (note the radio silence surrounding news leaks from the U.S. camp; compare and contrast, John Terry), and benefit from good old-fashioned luck (still, one hopes, to come). As I am sure you are aware, the 1930 U.S. team, a physical bunch affectionately known as "the Shotputters," stormed into the semis at the inaugural tournament. This is not new to us. We have had critical prior experience here, people. It may be time for us to start believing.