There's a Lot Going On

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 23: The USA team celebrate Landon Donovan's winning goal that sends the USA through to the second round during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Group C match between USA and Algeria at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium on June 23, 2010 in Tshwane/Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

[Note by Steve Perrin, 06/23/10 9:26 PM PDT ] It's times like these that I dislike proper netiquette.  Blog rules dictate that I have to overstrike edits instead of just changing things.  So I have to leave my geopolitical gaffe, suddenly transporting the Northern African nation of Algeria to the steppes of Central Asia to become Armenia, there for all to see.  Somehow calculating that the US had played 12 halves of football in 3 games was bad enough - changing the name of their opponent for no apparent reason is really bad.  My apologies to all of my Algerian and Armenian readers, and thanks to citizens ClippersUK and Michael White for pointing out my errors.

Here we are in probably the quietest time on the calendar for the major US sports leagues (NHL and NBA playoffs are over, NFL preseason is still six weeks away, and there's still 90 some games left in the interminable MLB season.  Yet my dance card is full.

Lucky for me I couldn't care less about golf since the US Open or some such tournament was this weekend, and I'm only mildly interested in Wimbledon (although the longest match in Wimbledon history was played today, and may still be going on for all I know).  In a couple of weeks when the Tour de France starts I don't know what I'm going to do.  I think I'm going to have to limit myself to recaps only this Tour.  I'm not sure how I can watch a six hour tour stage and the World Cup.

Add to all of this the fact that the Clippers off-season is FINALLY going to heat up and it's going to be a pretty crazy six weeks in the Perrin household. Even sports participation gets in the way.  ClipperMax starts high school in September, and he's got wrestling practice and soccer practice at LB Poly, not too mention ongoing jiu jitsu and the occasional rugby sevens tournament (he was MVP of his tournament two weekends ago).

The Clippers themselves have seemed content so far to do as little as possible, but although they can delay hiring a coach and let Neil Olshey be the GM by inertia, the draft will happen on Thursday whether they like it or not, and free agency starts a week after that.  So the next eight days will have a huge impact on the Clippers one way or another, and hopefully they won't continue to be spectators.  So yeah, it's getting busy.

I got up early this morning to walk up to Legends on Second Street in Long Beach to watch USA-Algeria with other fans.  Normally, I'd be watching on the DVR by myself at a more agreeable hour of the day than 7 AM, but this was too big.  As an extra added bonus, it was easy to keep tabs on the very important England-Slovenia match showing on about a third of the TV sets.

And all I can say is, wow.

First of all, you have to love the fact that Legends was standing room only on a Wednesday morning.  There are about six other places on Second Street showing the matches, so there are other viewing options as well.  In fact, I think I may have to stop by Aroma di Roma (an espresso and pannini place) tomorrow morning to watch Italy with Italian fans (though that might be a little dangerous as well, since my natural instinct will be to support Slovakia versus the Azzuri).  I wonder if the sushi bars will be showing Japan-Denmark at lunch tomorrow?  It's all quite a contrast to four years ago, when I had to tell the staff at La Creperie that the France match was on when I arrived one morning.

The atmosphere at Legends was amazing.  A few vuvuzelas, hundreds of USA jerseys (including me in my USA 94 throwback - unfortunately with it's red and white vertical stripes, I usually get mistaken for a Chivas fan when I wear it).  I actually arrived after the Algerian cross bar in the sixth minute, so the match I watched was pretty well dominated by the USMNT.  Unfortunately, it had the feel of a match in which the soccer gods would simply not smile on us - the US had chance after chance that they failed to convert, and yet another bad call negating a vital score.

FIFA's policy of having the final games of group play occur simultaneously in order to avoid any shenanigans of teams tanking in order to subvert feared or hated group foes had its desired tension-building affect today.  Dempsey's goal-that-wasn't came at 19:50 of the US-Algeria match.  Jermain Defoe's goal for England came a little over two minutes later, and that was a few seconds before we were shown the definitive replay that showed that Dempsey was in fact NOT offside.  So in a matter of maybe three minutes, it went from "If results hold, the US will advance" to "Goal USA!" to "Too bad, he was offside" to "Holy crap, England scored" to "Hey, he wasn't offside!" and suddenly the US was looking at not advancing on an accumulation of two consecutive incorrectly disallowed goals.

The US continued to generate excellent scoring chances throughout the game.  You have to credit the squad for creating opportunities - but then again someone's got to finish in order for them to count.  Dempsey's disallowed goal actually came after Gomez was stopped one on one by the keeper, Dempsey himself failed to convert a one on one about 15 minutes later, moments after that Gomez again was thwarted and Altidore put the rebound about 10 feet over the bar with the keeper completely out of the picture.  Really, the US should have been ahead 3-nil, and you can only blame one of those on the ref.

The second half was more of the same, although the missed US chances were not quite so easy.  Still, Dempsey hit the post and then mishit the rebound with another empty net in front of him, and second half replacement Edson Buddle had a solid strike at a header which the Algerian keeper deftly smothered.  When Slovenia's best chance went by the wayside in the other match, with the ball rattling around in England's box while three different Slovene's failed to line up a decent shot, it seemed like the US was destined to leave South Africa early, despite soundly outplaying their last two opponents.

The story of the game winner has not been well told by the analysts on TV, in my opinion.  Because the real story was the strategic decision to lure the Algerians into pushing forward, exposing them to a quick US counter.  That England goal against Slovenia was killing the US for two reasons.  Not only would it keep them out of the next round, but the Algerians seemed content to waste time and sit back on defense, since even a win wouldn't get them through so long as Slovenia lost.  (Still, you'd think they'd at least do their part and look for the game winner and cross their fingers that Slovenia could equalize late - I thought Algeria's defensive posture throughout the second half was somewhere between puzzling and shameful.)  If you run the goal sequence back a minute or so, you'll see that Armenia Algeria had six players forward against five US defenders, following a seemingly harmless Armenian Algerian throw in.  What at first looked like a US defensive blunder, perhaps a result of tired midfielders unable to get back, instead turned out to be a calculated risk that paid off brilliantly.  With six players forward, and two more in the midfield, the Desert Foxes were caught out by the four US attackers who had stayed forward not by mistake but rather by design.  After Tim Howard easily saved a rather mild header, his quick, perfect distribution to Donovan on the right flank  ignited a US break (like Wes Unseld grabbing a rebound and throwing an outlet pass).  From Howard's clearance, it was five US touches from three different players to Dempsey's shot, and a sixth touch by Donovan to confidently convert the rebound.  It was a lightning counter, exactly like you would draw it up.  Donovan, Dempsey, Altidore and Edson were all on the dead sprint in their lanes from the moment Howard got the ball out, and they didn't stop until they had buried the ball in the net and Donovan under a mountain of celebration. 

Here too, the simulaneous games were eerily aligned.  By my math, the England-Slovenia match ended mere seconds before Donovan got the US game winner.  In other words, just as it became imperative for the US to score, when there was no other alternative, they got the goal that had eluded them all day.

It's the right result for the group.  Slovenia, whose only win came on a botched save while they were playing with a man advantage, didn't deserve to go through, and certainly Algeria didn't with zero goals and a paltry six shots on goal in three games.  Everything went right for the Yanks today.  In Group D, Australia's improbable win over Serbia coupled with Germany's win put die Mannscaft at the top of the table, meaning that the US will avoid that European power and play Ghana on Saturday.  More importantly, for the first time in 80 years, the US have won their World Cup group, and are playing like a team that belongs in the round of 16 and beyond.  After a somewhat lackluster first six three halves of football (and let's face it, we didn't really deserve that point against England, though we'll take it), the USMNT has looked as good as any team in the tournament for the last six three halves.

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