Now that expanded emotions following the 1-0 U.S. win over Algeria on Wednesday have subsided, it's easier to offer an analytical view of just how lucky the Americans were to score the late goal of glory, how consequence contributed to the team's dream finish.
That's right, good fortune followed the American players in extra time, and U.S. fans can collectively say with comfort that they deserved it. Botched calls by the referees in games against Slovenia and Algeria and a failure by American players to finish premium chances on Wednesday created the potential for an apocalyptic and abrupt World Cup conclusion for the United States.
Rather, the game ended in euphoria, the new 51st state of the union.
U.S. fans can now stop flashing their middle fingers at soccer fate and cease lamenting lost opportunities in this World Cup. Rather, they should embrace an evolution of fortunate events that forged perhaps the moment of most frolics in U.S. soccer history.
It all started in extra time. At about the time England's 1-0 win over Slovenia was complete, Algeria must have thought there was still a chance Slovenia would tie the game in its waning seconds. In that case, if Algeria beat the Americans, they would advance to the round of 16 as the second place team behind Slovenia.
Why else would they push all but two players up near the 18-yard box in front of the U.S. goal during the failed scoring effort that led to the Americans' clinching counterattack? It was a little bit of dumb luck--and certainly a lack of tactical awareness-- that Algeria did not have the presence of mind to keep at least one more player in a more withdrawn defensive position. Certainly, fatigue could have prevented Algerian players from tracking back more quickly.
A numbers-up advantage in the attack is all American goalkeeper Tim Howard needed to see, and it was clear he saw it before the ball was in his gloves. Algeria's flubbed shot--a header directly into the chest-high hands of Howard--allowed the goalkeeper to more easily implement his instantaneous toss to an unmarked Landon Donovan, who took his first touch as he crossed the midfield line. The Americans immediately had a two-man advantage on the counterattack with plenty of space to maneuver comfortably and with composure. They did not have to force the issue.
As two Algerian defenders retreated to get behind the surge, the four American players assumed strong attacking positions. Donovan played the role of a basketball point guard, moving the ball toward the middle of the field. Jozy Altidore moved wide right and created space. Clint Dempsey supported Donovan to his left, forcing a defender to play the space to Dempsey's right rather than mark him tightly. Edson Buddle supported the play to Dempsey's left, forcing another defender to cover space between he and Dempsey rather than mark Dempsey tighter.
What happens next is worth repeating. Donovan passes to Altidore, who serves a ball across the box to Dempsey, whose low, hard shot is deflected like a golden gift away from goal and directly toward an on rushing Donovan, who had trailed the play in support.
If Algeria defended with three men in the back, the American's ability to finish would have been more restricted, and perhaps the bouncing ball that followed Dempsey's shot is cleared more easily out of the box.
Another stroke of good fortune (or was it good soccer sense?) is that Altidore opted for the simple play to Dempsey rather than force a floating cross to a more-clear Buddle, who showcased dubious skills throughout the day. Perhaps Altidore sensed Buddle was not the premium finisher his team needed at the time.
The premium finish by Donovan was certainly the tonic that tamed the queasy feelings felt by an angst-riddled U.S. fan base.
In the metaphysical imbalance that seems to envelope the World Cup, it appears misfortune inflicts a favored side more often than good fortune blesses it. So when lady luck lands on your lap, embrace her. Feed her and cuddle her. Rub her feet and neck. Do anything to keep her around. She doesn't visit often, or stay nearly long enough.
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