There are two ways to look at the American soccer team after today's down-to-the-last-minute 1-0 victory over Algeria.
The first is that it's just a soccer team -- who cares that they advanced to the second round? Mid-level college football games get better ratings.
The second is that finally America can compete on the international stage in a way that reflects both its anxiety and confidence. An unbeatable underdog, stifled by corrupt international bodies (in both today's game and last friday's tie with Slovenia, goals were inexplicably yanked by the refs), we show the world that we can play the world's game while still obsessing over whether LeBron James will stay in Cleveland.
The long debate over whether soccer has arrived in America is besides the point. Last Friday morning, almost four million American televisions tuned in to ESPN to watch their boys tie Slovenia, a country with only two million people. Sometimes, being a giant superpower has its advantages.
But, back to the game. Soccer is distinctly different from other American sports in that every play, especially when the game is tied, feels like it might be the last. There's no valves to capture tension like the television timeouts of football or the idling of a pitcher on the baseball mound.
So, at about the 71st minute mark, the game tied at 0-0, America in need of a goal to win and advance, that Ian Drake, the British ESPN announcer who--in a break from the American announcing convention of euphemism--called out referees for "awful" and "terrible" repeals of American goals, said that "time was tight." His co-announcer, former American stalwart John Harkes, a normally tame analyst goaded over the past weeks by his trans-atlantic partner into a state of Boosterism, agreed, urging his old side onward.
The clock ticked toward the 90 minute mark, and the little box in the upper left corner of the screen kept on flashing depressing statistics: since 1950, America had been in the world cup six times and lost the third game in the group stage each time; if everything held, and America didn't lose but tie, they wouldn't advance. And so on.
With about ten minutes to go, DeMarcus Beasley, a balding around the edges and a far cry from the phenom that excited the 2002 team, stepped onto the field, a veteran presence to calm the nerves and bear down. No luck there, it seemed--he was called for a handball about ten yards away from the Algerian goalie and given a yellow card.
At the 90 minute mark, the referees indicated that they tagging on four minutes of stoppage time, some final seconds where either side could get a chance to break the 0-0 deadlock. It seemed like a formality, a few extra moments of stress, perhaps another opportunity to watch striker Jozy Altidore blow another opportunity.
And yet, Landon Donovan--the mercurial American star--was streaking down the field, passing it Altidore on the right side near the goal. Altidore tried to cross the ball, but it ricocheted around and bounced off the goal, just sitting there in front of the net. Donovan knocked it in, with nary a minute to spare. America would move on.
In each sport, there is a moment when the crowd waits for resolution. The quarterback drops back and the pass hangs in the air, the ball jumps off a bat and hurtles toward centerfield, the shot approaches the hoop and bounces off te rim. Those moments of suspense take barely a second, holding the crowd on edge.
In soccer, the game slowly unfolds toward a single goal, those moments last minutes, and a mere four million or so Americans--more than ten percent of the Algerian population, for those counting at home--watched along.
On Saturday, once again, it will be win or go home, against Germany, Ghana, or Serbia. The other countries might be more obsessed, but it not like that means anything when Americans, with their strength in numbers, both watching at home and swarming the South African streets, will have more than enough.
Plus, NBA free agents can't sign until July 1.