I said it in a previous post, and it certainly bears repeating: They wouldn’t be the U.S. soccer team if they did things the easy way. USA went into its last World Cup group game against Algeria knowing that they needed to win to assure themselves of qualifying for the next round. Yet for 90 minutes and change, they failed to break down Algeria’s determined defense, while at the same time, England’s victory against Slovenia assured that USA would be eliminated if they couldn’t break the 0-0 tie. Then in the 91st minute, Landon Donovan popped up and scored a rebound goal after Algerian goalie Rais M’Bolhi had pushed the ball away from a breaking Clint Dempsey in the penalty box. USA emerges with a thrilling last-minute victory and will play again on Saturday. This is what the World Cup offers you: going from dejection to ecstasy in a few seconds.
Say this for USA: Their games are not dull. That’s why neutral fans like our soccer team, because anything can happen when USA is involved. We can struggle against inferior opponents and then take down soccer’s superpowers, and there always seems to be late drama like today. (For contrast, Japan is also punching above their weight so far at this World Cup, but their games have been deadly boring.) In that respect, we’re like Turkey, a streaky team that can’t consistently qualify for major tournaments (because they’re playing in stacked Europe), but lights things up when they get there, as they did in World Cup 2002 and Euro 2008.
USA should have been up before the 91st minute, but they were once again denied by poor officiating. Experienced Belgian referee Franck de Bleeckere was in charge of this match, but he disallowed Dempsey’s goal in the 20th minute for offside when TV replays showed Dempsey was onside. He also failed to notice Algeria’s Anthar Yahia elbowing Dempsey in the penalty box in the 82nd minute, which laid Dempsey out with a bloody lip, and should have resulted in a penalty kick for USA and a red card for Yahia. It would have been extremely cruel to get jobbed by the officials in a second straight game, but then again, no amount of excuses would have made up for USA failing to advance out of a group with Algeria and Slovenia. Well, the karma worked itself out in this case. USA not only got a well-deserved victory over an offensively woeful Algeria team, but finishes first in the group, ahead of England. Now the second-place finisher in Group D awaits us in the round of 16. I’ll be back with more analysis later today.