As Donovan, Buddle, Dempsey and Altidore raced down the right-center of the field every muscle in my body seemed to involuntarily clench. It was an odd sensation. But after 90 plus minutes of watching the US squander opportunity after opportunity against Algeria, I suppose it was a natural reaction. Even so, the fact that I has allowed myself to become so emotionally invested in this team, and this game, surprised me.
Soccer in the United States remains somewhat of an afterthought to the majority of the sports viewing and ticket purchasing public. Despite being the home sport of the largest growing minority populations in this country, populations that will soon become the majority of the populous according to our most recent census, you cannot find soccer (or as it is properly called throughout the globe "Futbol") on any of the major networks. Sure there is the occasional MLS game on ESPN and the MLS finals on ABC, but there is no Soccer Night in America or Sunday afternoon game that will be broadcast with any regularity.
Yet, there we were. Glued to the tube as the U.S. frantically pushed for the deciding goal that put them through to the knock-out round of the World Cup. All this despite the National Team's disastrous showing four years earlier in Germany. Despite rules and referees that seemed predetermined to screw the National Team out of advancing. And despite the fact that so few of us really understand what was going on before us.
But that number is growing, as is fubol in America. According to a 2006 report on youth athletics, approximately 17.5 million U.S children played soccer at some level. And after years of development and commitment, the U.S. National team is finally beginning to reap the rewards of what it has sown.
As Donovan fed the ball toward the space above the right side of the box and Altidore charged through his man, all breathing ceased. Running stride for stride with Altidore, Clint Dempseysprinted directly at the keeper with a defender draped all over him as if he was wearing a cape. In a fluid movement, Altidore collected the ball mid-sprint and delivered an arcing feed toward the charging Dempsey, who had deftly beaten his man and gained the precious inside position he needed to take the shot. The ball found Dempsey.
But not to be beaten was Algerian keeper Raïs M'Bohli, who played the pass and shot with a desperate yet brilliantly timed dive. Dempsey's shot did not find twine, but found M'Bohli's outstretched hands and body. Unfortunately for M'Bohli, he could not cover the ball. The rebound from Dempsey's shot and his sprawling effort sent the ball rolling directly out into Landon Donovan's path. M'Bohli gathered himself faster than any human being should have been able to and dived once more into as much of Donovan's view as he could muster. But it wasn't enough. With a calm right foot, Donovan eased the U.S. National team into the the knockout round of the World Cup as his drive reached the back of the net.
Then, mercifully, I allowed air to re-enter my lungs.
This is not the first time the U.S. has advanced to the round of 16. In 1994 National team reached the round of 16 and in 2002 they advanced to the final eight. Each time pundits and supporters of the "beautiful game" predicted that thiswas the time that soccer, ney futbol, would finally take hold and become an American passion. Both times those predictions were wrong. But only slightly so.
While the U.S. may not have a professional league that rivals Serie A, the Bundesliga, or the Premiership, it does have a thriving and growing professional league. More people, older people, in the US are being exposed to futbol than ever before. It's no longer a sport for the young before they take up other endeavors, it's a sport that has grown not just in popularity but in appreciation among the American sportsfan. And finally, it is a sport that is ready to be embraced by this country.
And that final push by the US encapsulates why so many love this sport. Speed. Beauty. Skill. Determination. Brute force. Chaos. All the things in sport that Americans love and desire. Altidore's speed. Dempsey's brute strength, and Donovan's skill and determination. All were on display, waiting for the viewing public to embrace. Judging from the reaction, they have.
We all know this feeling can be fleeting. You need look no further than the U.S. Olympic Hockey team's performance in Vancover, or the U.S.'s prior Would Cup appearances. Fascination can quickly turn into apathy if the fires are not properly stoked.
But there was something different about today. A different feeling. In that moment, as Donovan's drive crossed by the fingers of the keeper and crossed the goal line, everything seemed as it should. The U.S. Soccer team wasn't just lucky to advance, they deserved it. They fought against every conceivable card, foul, and call, and came away with a result they outright deserved. This was not, is not, a group of scrappy overachievers. It is a highly skilled, dangerous futbol team that belongs among the world's elite.
And today was the day America took notice of that.
(HT: Spencer Hall)