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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