I have no intention of turning this post into a debate about the merits of soccer; if you're here, odds are good that you're a fan. If not, odds are you're a troll. In order to make a point, however, I need to mention the fact that many critics of the sport tend to mention the lack of scoring as the largest factor preventing them from becoming fans. And while I obviously don't agree, I can see it. I'm at best a casual fan of basketball, and when I am emotionally invested it's generally a matter of civic pride (for a city I have mostly negative feelings towards, oddly enough.) Most of my disinterest stems from fact that there's too much scoring; I dislike shootouts in American football for similar reasons. People look for different things out of sports, and there's a reason soccer and baseball are my favorites.
If you're casual fan or a curious newcomer watching today, and you're pulling for the United States? I've got to think you understand now. Even if you're never going to become crazy about soccer, if you had even a shred of emotional investment in the outcome of the match, you felt it. The ball Algeria sent off the bar in the 4th minute. Altidore missing the sitter. The questionable (though in my view not nearly as horrendous as it's being made out to be) offside call that erased an apparent Clint Dempsey goal. Wasted chance after wasted chance by the US, dangerous counter after dangerous counter by Algeria. As fun as it can be to watch your team win in a rout, matches like this are what keep us coming back.It's been said often enough that it's probably reached the point of being a cliche, but soccer is 90-plus minutes of absolute torture. If you're lucky, it's peppered with brief moments of rapture. If you're really lucky, those moments of rapture do not immediately revert to torture. Supports of the US have had many moments of have had their fair share of fleeting joy so far in this tournament. From Altidore's narrow miss that would have put them ahead against England to Edu's goal-that-wasn't against Slovenia to Dempsey's goal-that-wasn't today. It can be hell. More often than not it is hell. And there's really nothing worse than being in total control of a match that you absolutely must win and being incapable of taking control where it actually matters. Algeria's defense had its moments, but let's be honest; the US were dominant. On a day when they're capable of finishing, the US probably win this match by two or three goals. Even the best teams in the world struggle to put the ball in the net on occasion, but in those cases you expect them to break through eventually. The US are not one of the best teams in the world, however, and the entire match had an overtone of dread inevitability.
What happened in the 92nd minute, though? That was it. That's why we put ourselves through all this torture. When Donovan managed to come out of nowhere and capitalize on what looked like yet another wasted chance, it made the monumental emotional swing that followed the realization that Edu's goal would not count look like nothing. All of the disappointments of the past two weeks faded away into nothing; the US had gone from staring down a first round exit that many would call a massive failure to winning their group and securing what could very well be a winnable match in the Round of 16. And while I'm not naive enough to think that this is the moment that leads to soccer's popularity suddenly exploding in the United States, at the very least I hope it makes people get why it is that we love it, if only just a little bit.
As far as the match itself, Tim Howard was incredible as always. Aside from his typically stellar play in goal, he managed to have a not-insignificant role in creating the breakaway that led to the winner. Donovan had a shaky start but pulled it together in a big way and managed to put himself in position to send his team to the next round. The defense was poor for the most part, but it is only fair to point out that a lot of that was tactical; Bradley took a calculated risk in believing that Algeria's lack of offensive power made heavily involving the defense in the attack a risk worth taking, and I tend to agree with him. Algeria looked dangerous on occasion, but aside from hitting the bar early on (which was due to a standard defensive lapse more than being caught out of position due to the taking of risks) Algeria didn't look much of a real threat at goal. Jozy Altidore was obviously not 100% fit (or anywhere close,) but he gave everything he had and was instrumental in helping create several real chances. In my eyes though, Benny Feilhaber was Man of the Match; his play at both ends was inspired and the US looked more dangerous in the attack and more composed in their own end from the second he came on.
I mean it when I say that the early matches today could not have gone more wonderfully. The US win the group and advance to face the runner-up of Group D, which could shockingly be any of the four. England defeated Slovenia to advance as well; they'll get the winner of Group D. The Group Stage has gone well; US and England advance, France explode into a fiery ball of hilarity and several surprise teams have advanced or look to be in a good position to do so in the coming days. It might have started a bit slowly, but this is shaping up to be a pretty great World Cup.