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One Golden Moment

A year ago today, what has, in retrospect, become one of my favourite soccer moments ever happened. I say in retrospect because I didn’t watch the game live, seeing a replay late at night, then watching the clip over and over again for the past 12 months.

The United States was matched up against Algeria in the final game of the group stage of the 2010 World Cup. Based on the result of the England-Slovenia match, which had just concluded, the US needed a win to advance. As the matches were running simultaneously, they likely didn’t know this for sure.

A Clint Dempsey goal early in the match was waived off on a dubious offside call. As the match approached the 90th minute, it remained deadlocked 0-0. Algeria, also needing a win to have a hope of advancing, had curiously played a very defensive style, as if they were content to eke out a draw, and call it a day.

Deep in injury time, Algeria shot on net, which was stopped by Tim Howard, the American goalkeeper. Howard then threw as perfect an outlet pass as I have ever seen to find Landon Donovan on the right wing near midfield to begin a basketball-style fast break. With the Algerian defense opened up, Donovan sprinted into the final third of the pitch, finding striker Jozy Altidore near the top of the box on the right hand side. Altidore crossed to Dempsey, who couldn’t get it by the keeper. With the ball sitting in the crease, Donovan, who had followed the play (like a trailing man in basketball crashing the boards), tapped it into the wide open net to put the American side up 1-0.

As Donovan sprinted to the corner to celebrate with his teammates, punctuating the play with a headfirst slide, Ian Darke – calling the game for ESPN – shouted the now famous line “go go USA!” (which, for months I thought was “goal goal USA!” – which would have also worked). Watch the play in its entire glory:

http://www.iviewtube.com/player/player.swf

There are a few reasons I love this play, and think it matters – and will continue to for a long time.

The Play Itself
I used a couple of basketball references earlier, and I think this points to a potential evolution – and contribution from the Americans – to soccer.

Unlike in places like Europe and South America where soccer has been the dominant sport for a century or longer, American soccer is catching up to sports such as football, baseball, and basketball. A potential contribution from Americans to the game may be to incorporate styles or types of play that can be adopted from other sports the players learn as kids. They’ll never reinvent the game in another sport’s image, and I would argue they need to adopt more European and South American practices on the pitch, but little plays here and there that they adopt from the schoolyard can add value to the game.

This was a basketball-style play, from the outlet pass to Landon Donovan crashing the boards (or crashing the net, to use a hockey term), for the finish. I wonder if kids from a country that doesn’t know the sport would ever create something similar.

The Redemption of Landon Donovan
Long derided as Landycakes for his decision to stay home, instead of sticking it out in the toughest European leagues (his struggles in the 2006 World Cup also didn’t help), Donovan redeemed himself in 2010, first with a successful stint on loan to Everton of the English Premier League, then with his excellent play in 4 World Cup matches. His goal against Slovenia sparked the US comeback from down 2-0 to draw (watch how the goalie recoils). I’ve always liked Donovan, starting with the buzz around him as a teenager in the late ’90s, and through his breakout performance in the 2002 World Cup. Seeing him redeem himself on soccer’s biggest stage was a tremendous moment. (As an aside, Joe Posnanski’s pre-World Cup profile of LD is a must read).

Even as Donovan’s career starts to hit a decline (he’s been out of the starting 11 for the past 2 Gold Cup matches), these moments will live on, contributing to his reputation as one of America’s great soccer players to date.

The Reaction

The moment went viral, spurred by a fan’s compilation of reactions from people and places around the world. It is shown again and again, popping up on best moments of 2010 lists, and US Soccer compilations.

A couple of the reactions seem forced, and probably were done in retrospect, but the vast majority show fans who are genuinely ecstatic, celebrating the moment as a communal event, and one of the biggest successes to date for their national team.

Anyone who thinks Americans don’t care about soccer needs to watch this video again and again. There has always been a following, and it has mushroomed in the past two decades. 2010, and Donovan’s golden goal, may yet be remembered as the moment American soccer fully crossed into the mainstream public’s consciousness.

The Context
It’s worth noting that the US were eliminated next match, in the round of 16, which as I noted last year, is probably about where they should have gone out. Yet the moment is still celebrated, as it was a victory of sorts for the side. To me, it shows an evolution in the consciousness of soccer fans. Other North American sports are seen as a winner take all event. NFL fans don’t celebrate or remember the moment where their team reached the playoffs or pulled off a big upset (unless a championship was at stake). Soccer is far less egalitarian, more accurately mirroring real life in that way. Different teams have different expectations, and likely always will. Simply making the World Cup is a victory for some. In league play, gaining promotion to the top division is the high water mark for many clubs. A victory over a top club may be remembered for years.

Even though the US went out in the first knockout round, this moment is in its own way one of the high water marks. It’s the second furthest the US has advanced (they made the Round of 16 in 1994, and the Quarterfinals in 2002), but it represented another step forward for them on the international stage. Long an underachieving, they came through in a situation where it mattered. Some day, should the US become a true soccer power, this moment might be forgotten by all but the fans who were following that day. But for the moment, it represents a beautiful thing in soccer, from the play, to the reaction, and will continue to resonate for soccer fans around the world.

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We Should All Be Bruins Fans Tonight

The Vancouver Canucks franchise was in its second season the last time the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Tonight, they meet in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. History favours Vancouver as the home team – both on odds, and if you go by recent history, the home team has won every game so far this series.

The other day, one of my favourite sportswriters, Jonah Keri, wrote a piece called Why the Bruins Shouldn’t Win the Stanley Cup. This is a rare case where I disagree. The Bruins are the team anyone should want to win tonight. I’m going to respond to a few of Jonah’s arguments below.

(Full disclosure: I support the Bruins, and all Boston teams. And I’m also a proud Canadian).

No one in Canada wants you to win, of course. Not when a Canadian team might bring the Cup back home for the first time in 18 years.

Yes, this is the case for some Canadian fans, but it shouldn’t be. Also, many Canadians shudder at the thought of how boastful Canucks fans will be after their first Cup win. If you cheer for the Oilers or Flames during the regular season, why should you suddenly adopt their rival simply because they play in Canada? Does this prove we’re somehow superior at hockey because a team that is based in our country, but composed of players from several different nationalities, wins the Cup? Nonsense. We prove our mettle as a hockey nation by routinely winning international competitions. With Canadian born and bred players. Claiming national pride because of the Canucks is based on outdated concepts of nationalism, and as ridiculous as saying Spain is the best soccer country in the world because Barcelona just won the Champions League (on a technical point – they are the best because their national side is the defending Euro Cup and World Cup champion. Just like we’re the defending Olympic hockey champions).

Sure, Boston was once a suffering sports town.

Now? You sound like the douchebag who bitches that(…)

Meanwhile, the Canucks have existed for 41 years and haven’t won jack.

Sure, Boston has won in other sports, but many fans support the Bruins in the way they don’t for other local teams. It would be like saying “I don’t feel so bad for the Expos losing in the ’81 playoffs because the Habs just won 4 Cups in a row”.

Also, looking at their past experience, it’s clear that Boston fans have had it worse. Vancouver has 4 decades of middling management, with a couple of lucky runs involved. Boston has had good teams that couldn’t quite get over the hump, and in some cases lost in heartbreaking fashion.

In their first Stanley Cup finals appearance (1982), Vancouver had a losing record (and overall, 11th best out of 21 teams). They got swept by the New York Islanders, the 3rd of 4 consecutive Stanley Cups they would win. In their second appearance (1994), the Canucks were the 7th seed in the West, and made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the New York Rangers – who had the best record in the league that year. Neither result says “tortured” as much as it says the team overperformed, and ultimately probably didn’t deserve a better result.

Now compare that to the Bruins. They’ve appeared in 5 finals since, and respectively those teams finished the regular season in 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 1st overall. Each time they were a worthy finalist, but couldn’t get over the hump against some of the best teams of all time – the ’75 Broad Street Bully Flyers, the Habs dynasty in ’77 and ’78 (the ’77 club is considered the best of all time) and the ’88 and ’90 Oilers – the ’88 version was Gretzky’s last year with the club, and the ’90 version had much of the dynasty still in tact, and Bill Ranford playing out of his mind in goal.

Now you want to talk torture? Two of their great players – Bobby Orr and Cam Neely – saw their careers cut short due to knee injuries. In Neely’s case, it was after a knee on knee hit from notorious cheap shot artist Ulf Samuelsson. How about the ’79 semi-final, where Game 7 against Montreal turned on a critical too many men on the ice penalty. How about last year’s playoffs, where they led Philly 3-0, lost Game 4 in overtime, then blew the series after also holding a 3-0 lead early in Game 7.

I watched a Bruins-Lightning game this year from the nosebleeds with the diehard fans. It was awesome.

This Vancouver club had the best record in the regular season, but Boston was tied for 7th. Neither is in the final by fluke. You could argue this is the first time the Canucks had a club that legitimately could have expected to reach the final. Maybe they’ve suffered through 40 years of bad management, but so do many teams. This is nothing compared to what Bruins fans have endured.

Those cities have seen enormous sports heartbreak, their spirits deflated as they trudge through January blizzards waiting for their shot at the big one.

That quote is in reference to places like Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Buffalo. Some cities have truly endured heartbreak with their teams. Buffalo lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, when they probably had the better team at least twice. They lost the ’98 Cup final because Brett Hull kicked in the winning goal. Minnesota, the most hockey-mad state in the US, suffered through mediocre management of the North Stars, got lucky and made the final in ’91 (against a much better Penguins team, led by Mario), then watched the team move to Dallas just as Mike Modano was coming into his prime (they won the aforementioned ’98 Cup). In their first decade, the expansion Minnesota Wild have been nothing short of uninspiring.

No one will likely ever be tortured more than Cleveland fans, who came a game short of the Super Bowl twice in the ’80s, losing in such heartbreaking fashion that each game can be described in two words (The Drive and The Fumble), then watched a potential baseball dynasty break up in the ’90s (losing one World Series on a critical error by their 2B). This century? They only had the best athlete to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown break up with them on a nationally televised program.

What do Vancouver fans know about suffering? Maybe losing Game 7 at home, especially if it’s in heartbreaking fashion, will teach them what fans of other teams have gone through. Until that happens, the Vancouver Canucks will remain an unlikable, dirty hockey team. Seeing them win the Cup isn’t something anyone but the most hardcore Canucks fan should want to happen.

What’s so unlikeable about this Canucks club, you ask? I’ll leave the final word to Jonah:

This series should have reinforced pro-Bruins sentiment. Vancouver’s Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron’s fingers was a punk move, one that would have been handled with a flurry of right hooks to the head if this were 30 years ago and the game hadn’t turned away from fighting. Maxim Lapierre’s Game 2 taunt, where he stuck his fingers in Bergeron’s face and dared him to bite back, wasn’t much better.

And there’s The Hit. Five minutes into Game 3, Aaron Rome lined up Nathan Horton, watched him get rid of the puck, took three strides, dipped his shoulder, leapt for the head, and blew him up. However you felt about the hit, you had to feel for Horton, laid out on the ice, his teammates and 17,565 spectators looking on in horror, medics fumbling with a stretcher, trying to stabilize the big Ontarian before the frantic ride to Mass General.

Go Bruins.