Halfway through the second match, against Slovenia, the US looked to be heading home after yet another disappointing showing. Bob Bradley would be "fired" (for some reason, the US chooses a new coach for every World Cup cycle), the stars would be derided for disappearing when the chips were down, and soccer would once again be the sport that everyone plays but nobody watches. 45 minutes later, the US had two things: hope and anger. Hope that they could still qualify for the knockout stage and anger that calls that affected the game could be missed so badly.
So, coming into the third match, we knew this: FIFA refs suck, just like officials in all sports do, and the USMNT would have to play extra hard to overcome that, just like every other side does. (It's no different than in other sports. Champions play through bad calls.) Of course, it wasn't all in our hands, at least not with respect to winning the group. Defeating Algeria would put the US through, but coupled with an England win by the same margin or less, Group C would go to the Americans, and that would mean an apparently favorable draw, possibly avoiding Germany in the round of 16 and maybe even getting South Korea in the quarters.
The bar where we watched both matches was full, naturally. It's a soccer bar anyway (opening at 7 during the tournament, which is no mean feat in a state where you can't even buy beer on Sundays, mostly), and with both the US and England in action, seats were scarce. (At this point, I was grateful to be self-employed.) I got the table, everyone arrived, I got my food, and it was time for soccer ... sort of.
The first half brought some surprises. For one, Bradley changed his lineup around in a surprising way, and it worked great. The US had only one major defensive lapse, and fortunately for them, the wide-open Algerian striker hit the crossbar squarely. Possession was used better, and the ball was frequently seen moving from flank to flank, rather than shot directly into a cloud of midfielders or launched over the top for yet another hopeless run.
Even better, the US produced a number of chances, the best being Clint Dempsey's goal that was incorrectly disallowed by the referee's assistant. (FIFA doesn't need replay and they're happy with that. Reminds you of MLB, doesn't it? And yes, Sepp Blatter is even dumber than Bud Selig, if you can believe that.) Yes, you'll read about it over and over again, but the point to take away from the half was that it should easily have been 2-0 or even 3-0. This wasn't like the Slovenia match at all.
But England had scored on Slovenia, and that pushed the US into third if nothing were to change.
The second half was more of the same: poor officiating (just ask Dempsey's face), US chances, and no goals. No change from the other match as well, and as the minutes ticked away and opportunities continued to be wasted, the tension grew. There was always someone encouraging the bar, but you could tell we were concerned.
Finally, the play. Injury time. Howard throws the ball out to Donovan (something keepers figure is more accurate than kicking with this ball), Donovan finds Altidore, Altidore feeds Dempsey, Dempsey can't chip and simply smacks it off the keeper, Donovan swoops in .... GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAL!
Have you ever seen an explosion of emotion? An entire bar of American fans (well, with one or two English or English/American fans) stands as one and screams in delight. From the agony of defeat to the thrill of victory with just minutes remaining ... and not only do the Americans win (clinched a minute later when the Algerian captain is wrongly sent off), they finish top of Group C, and instead of drawing die Mannschaft, they get second-placed Ghana.
Yes, it's in Africa, but hey, Algeria is also in Africa, and there were plenty of US supporters there. In Saturday's match, the US should be able to advance ... and then with either Uruguay or South Korea waiting in the quarterfinals, the US has a path to the semis for the first time since 1930. Can they make it? If not now, when?
So what should the score have been, if the US had, as they say, clinical finishing?
19' - Gomez shoots directly at the keeper rather than into the net. He collects the rebound and finds Dempsey for an easy goal. This, of course, is the one denied incorrectly. Way to go, FIFA. Nonetheless, Gomez should have scored initially.
36' - Donovan shoots, the rebound comes straight out, and both Altidore and Donovan swing high and send the ball well over the net.
56' - Dempsey with a beautiful chip that crashes off the post; the rebound returns and he puts it well wide.
67' - Buddle places a header directly at the keeper with the entire net at his dispoal.
That's four goals right there (counting the missed Gomez shot, not the offside call).
Further, you have three calls that were flat-out missed:
19' - You already know this one. Dempsey scores and the assistant calls it offside.
48' - Dempsey is elbowed in the face in the box. No foul.
80' - Dempsey is smacked in the face by the Algerian captain, Yahia, who already has a yellow card. This should have been a PK and a second yellow, but instead is nothing at all. (Karma strikes back as Yahia is sent off later for doing nothing at all, a case of mistaken identity.)
The US dominated Algeria and scored but one goal, exactly like a football team with 400+ yards of total offense and a single touchdown. You get no credit for possession, only for balls in the net. Let's hope we see more American celebrations for that on Saturday.