Wednesday, June 23, 2010
U.S. thrusts itself into relevance
By Scott French Special to ESPNLosAngeles.com
Soccer is a big deal in the United States, whether you believe that or not. There are millions of fans, some as passionate about the sport and their teams as the most committed ultra in Argentina or Italy, many as knowledgeable about the game as the most informed Englishman or German.
But of the signposts on America's road to becoming a soccer nation -- from Pele to Beckham, from 1994 to Brandi Chastain taking off her shirt, from Fox Soccer Channel to ESPN embracing the game -- what's occurred the past week might be the biggest of all.
Thanks go to Koman Coulibaly and Landon Donovan, perhaps in equal measure. And here's a shout out to Peter Hermans, too.
The U.S. was thrilled with its 1-0 victory over Algeria to clinch Group C.
They made America -- everyday America: the America that loves the NFL and NASCAR, loves/hates the New York Yankees, and takes little notice of sporting exploits elsewhere unless "Olympics" is attached -- care about soccer.
Coulibaly, the Malian referee who waved off a stunning goal by Maurice Edu of Fontana, Calif., to complete the U.S.'s comeback from a two-goal deficit Friday against Slovenia, did American soccer a favor. He robbed us -- not just Edu and Donovan and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley, but all of us -- and by doing so fermented this country's identification with this U.S. team. We'd been wronged, and in our indignation, soccer suddenly mattered.
Coulibaly's larceny created a win-or-go-home situation for our boys, and Hermans' offside flag canceling Clint Dempsey's perfectly good goal early in Wednesday's showdown with Algeria raised the stakes. As the Yanks attacked without success -- again and again firing just off target or off the post or somewhere within Algerian goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi's heroic reach -- the tension thickened, and all of America, it seemed, was zoned in as the clock ticked toward 90 minutes and into that foreign concept of stoppage time.
Then, with elimination moments away, a quick counterattack started by U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard led to Donovan's racing toward the Algerian goal, a pass to Altidore and a feed inside to Dempsey. M'Bolhi came up big again, beating Dempsey to the ball and knocking it away.
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There will be plenty of Americans, whether or not they've followed this sport before, who will remember exactly where they were when Donovan, the biggest name in the American game (and a local California boy, too, from Redlands), sprinted into Algeria's box and ripped that loose ball into the net. It unleashed an explosion of emotion -- ecstasy and relief, perhaps in equal portions -- across this land, in packed bars and pubs, in living rooms, in the audio/video aisles of department stores.
Suddenly, the rest of America is appreciating the idiosyncrasies that soccer fans find special about the game: that it's not always fair, that you're not always rewarded for good work, that the better side does not always win, that a 0-0 game can be the most exciting thing imaginable, that it does not matter how big you are or where you're from, that the anticipation (and denial) of success makes success, when it comes, all the sweeter.
Soccer doesn't need the World Cup to succeed in America -- it's already a success, whether or not the mainstream media (and a populace that so often takes its cues from that media) deigns it so or not. And the excitement this World Cup and the Americans' exhilarating performances in the second half against Slovenia and against Algeria (and the never-say-die work ethic of our boys) has stirred is no more than another step in soccer's emergence here as something that matters. But it's a big step and a moment we'll remember.
Scott French writes the Football Futbol Soccer blog for ESPNLosAngeles.com.