Sunday, June 13, 2010

One Gaffe Changes Everything?

They'll call it a gift goal. An early Christmas present. Fluke play or choke job, maybe. Or perhaps the invisible hand of God, obviously no longer interested in saving the Queen, reached down and put some extra spin on the ball that darted hopefully from Clint Dempsey's left foot and proved too much for goalkeeper Rob Green to handle. The American players will hear many things this morning about being unworthy beneficiaries. I hope they don't buy in. While it's cliche to state that successful teams make their own luck, I can't help but figure the United States deserved the result they earned. After all, England caught their own good fortune when American striker Jozy Altidore's potentially game winning shot deflected off Green's gloves and found the post instead of the back of the net. In "the beautiful game," the breaks have a way of evening out over ninety minutes.

Things kicked off as they often do for the U.S. in the World Cup Finals- a quick goal from the opposition, resulting from a few out of position and lead-footed American defenders. Stephen Gerrard's sudden run was less sly and ubiquitous and more about Ricardo Clark's lack of focus. It was arguably the only mental mistake of the match for the Americans. Seemingly more united and opportunistic then their highly-skilled English counterparts, the U.S. squad turned in a scrappy and resolute performance after falling behind. Early on it appeared that, from a play-making perspective, only midfielder Landon Donovan could match wits with the talented English trio of Gerrard, Frank Lampard and superstar Wayne Rooney. But Rooney struggled to find a niche, stifled by U.S center backs Jay DeMerit and Onyewu Onyewu. Midfielder Steve Cherundolo, neutralizing the finesse and flair of Lampard and Gerrard, was an absolute workhorse on both ends for U.S. Coach Bob Bradley.

Tim Howard, however, was the Man of the Match and the Americans will likely go as far as he can carry them. Brilliant between the pipes, as always, Howard carries on a long tradition of impressive Team USA goalkeepers at the international level...from Tony Meola to Bay Village's own Brad Friedl. That's no surprise for a nation that prides itsself on hand-eye coordination, but Howard's play was beyond stellar in the opener. He was the heartbeat of Sam's Army, pumping belief into his teammates with every blast he turned away that would've given England an insurmountable 2-0 advantage. Space was hard to come by for the Americans, who characteristically went through long stretches of kick-and-run dryspells, so Howard's stabilization after a first-half collision with Emile Heskey was all the more essential.

With two inferior opponents on the horizon, it would now be a major disappoinment for the Unites States not to advance out of Group C. Expectations in single-elimination play will be non existant. The 2002 Cup produced an unexpected quarterfinal run, sandwiched by an embarrassing showing in 2002 and a lackuster effort four years ago. For decades, the road to respectability for soccer in America has been paved with pratfalls and pity. A draw against England, after months of anticipation, hardly silences even the mildest critic. Still- if one game can change everything, as they claim, well can one goal. Or, in this case, one gaffe.