Going into Wednesday’s World Cup match against Algeria, the US side faced two possibilities: lose or tie and go home, or win and advance at the top of Group C. In the previous matches against England and Slovenia the US team had showed competence, if a bothersome tendency to hang back in the first half and absorb pressure instead of going on the attack early. The Americans also seemed to have trouble coordinating their attacks until the second half.
Wednesday’s game was nothing like that. With everything to play for both sides came out fast and strong. The first half looked like it was played on fast forward. There were attacks! Crisp and coordinated passing! Relentless pressure! Dramatic shots on goal! Controversial officiating! It was a highlight reel played out in real time.
The second half started out a little slower, as both teams had expended a lot of energy. The US flat outplayed Algeria, showing a heretofore unseen ability to string together crisp passes to set themselves up for quality shots on goal. And there were a lot of shots, but the US was repeatedly stymied by a stout Algerian defense and what looked like a previously unknown Algerian ball defense force field. The ball just would not go in the goal. For their part, the Algerians showed an uncanny ability to get the ball to the one player who was exploiting the one place on the field where the US wasn’t. This allowed some quality Algerian shots on goal, but Howard in goal was more than equal to the task and showed a commensurate ability to get the ball to an American downfield with spot-on precision.
As time grew shorter without a score play on the field became increasingly chippy, and the referees, who had seemed content to let play continue earlier on, started handing out penalties and yellow cards. The Algerian tackling became increasingly aggressive, leading to several US free kicks, and still the ball would not go in.
In nearly any other sport, when official time expires the game is over. Because this is not the case in soccer, the US side avoided the purgatory of being denied advancement without having been defeated. In this match four minutes of stoppage time were added, in the first minute Landon Donovan scored a goal, and just like that, US chances in this World Cup went from nothing to everything.
I’m not a huge soccer fan, but I do enjoy sport, and I’ve witnessed a number of great sports moments, from dramatic victories to heart-stopping plays to great saves. You can watch the highlights, but they don’t provide context. To watch the game, to understand what came before, to be emotionally invested in the outcome, is to understand the drama of that goal. In my personal history of sports moments, that goal is going to rank.