With about 15 minutes to go in the USA-Algeria game, I have to admit: Doubt was creeping in.
I was chewing a hole through my one-week old United States scarf. My heart was residing somewhere above my throat. The faces of the fans gathered at Johnny's Tavern in the Power Light District were taut with frustration.
These things went through my brain: Why won't they push forward? ... That wasn't a foul? ... That wasn't a foul! ... Come on Landon, get the ball wider. ... What is DaMarcus thinking? ... Jozy, you've got to be better than this! ...
When they announced 4 minutes of stoppage time, the buzzing of nervous energy in the bar would've drowned out a philharmonic orchestra of vuvuzleas. I was already prepping in my head the angry column I was going to write about how, for the second game in a row, the referee screwed the United States. About how we were headed back into the soccer wilderness to possibly be lost forever again.
And then, in one second, everything changed. One beautiful second.
If that sounds an awful lot like a marketing cliche, well, it is. Two different commercials in heavy rotation during this World Cup (one for AT and one for MLS) hinge upon that single sentiment. But cliches are cliches because, for the most part, they are true.
In one second, the Algerian goalie was swallowing up Clint Dempsey's attempt on goal. The next, the ball spilled to the feet of Landon Donovan and he pounced on it quicker than you can blink or inhale normally. That split second sent a gigantic ripple throughout the soccer world. And if that sounds an awful lot like hyperbole, well, it is.
On a micro level: A bar full of footie fanatics went from the cliffs of depression to the heights of hysteria. There were beer-soaked hugs, delirious handshakes. I received more high-fives than Lyle Lovett did the day he married Julia Roberts.
Stunned looks were mixed with smiles. "That just happened," a stunned fan said a few times. The first time it was a question. The second time it was a statement. The third time it resembled Kevin Garnett's victory speech in the 2008 NBA Finals.
Unlike some other soccer celebrations, there were no casualties. Well, unless you count Johnny's overhead projector, which received a lethal dose of beer and shorted out.
On a macro level: Donovan's last-second salvation strike directly secured qualification into the knockout stage of the World Cup and united the words "success" and "USA Soccer." That's a big deal. There was no backing in to the playoffs this time. This was win-or-go-home time and the USA stepped up to the plate. There are tons of potential fans out there that will never grasp the intricacies of the game or follow the Dutch Eredivisie. But they can get pumped every four years for the World Cup if they know there's a chance that the good ol' US of A can actually win a game or two.
That happened today. The USA won when it mattered.
You could argue that soccer had this same moment in 2002. But I would counter that was more luck (i.e., we needed South Korea to produce a shock result against Portugal while we managed to not lose to Poland by too many goals) than quality.
Luck had nothing to do with it this time. The USA had a simple task: Win an important game against one of the 32 best teams in the world. And they did that. And they did, actually, more than that.
Donovan's miraculous finish at the death meant that the United States:
• Picked up a point in the final group game ... for the first time ever!
• Posted a shutout in the group stage ... for the first time since 1950!!
• Finished the group stage in first place ... for the first time since 1930!!!
• Managed to not lose a single game in group play ... which hasn't happened EVER!
Don't mistake my all-encompassing enthusiasm for a lack of reason. This isn't the greatest result in U.S. men's soccer history* (that would be 2-0 against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup to reach the quarterfinals) but this might have the most long-term impact.* It has been brought to my attention that I should mention that I'm talking about "men's" soccer history. As the U.S. women have won TWO World Cups and were involved in one of the most dramatic World Cup finals in history in 1999.
I'm not saying that we should start planning the funeral for the NFL. Or start counting the last days of baseball. Or that I think we're mere months away from becoming a nation of shiny-shorts wearing footie-philes.* That's not going to happen. And only a fool would make those claims.*Will it quiet the huddling minority who's biggest problem with the game is that they either a) don't understand it or b) don't want to take the time to learn it? Absolutely not. But you know what, I can't even hear them today.
What I am saying is that we are a nation of front-runners. We want to win. And that's exactly what happened today. We won and are now a likely favorite to advance (based on group performance) to the quarterfinals.
There's still a whole ton of tournament to go. But this is the "tournament" phase now. There are no more ties. There won't be any results decided by goal differential. It's single elimination, a familiar format openly embraced by every U.S. sport except college football.
If you'll allow me to channel my own inner Kevin Garnett: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!
The TV coverage is there (ESPN is covering the Jesus Navas out of this Cup aren't they?) and the small, but rabid fans, are here and have been for a while.
All that we need now are the swing voters. Did this win enough of them over today? Only time will tell.
Hopefully, in the future, we'll look back at June 23, 2010 as the day, nay, the second, that one goal and one very focused team changed the perception of this sport in America. Try to keep a pair of shiny-shorts handy.