Thursday, June 24, 2010

Onward and Upward

I've watched Landon Donovan's game winning goal dozens of times today. Each time, I feel happiness as I watch the ball slide into the bottom corner sending the US soccer team into jubilant celebration. Watching the highlight over and over, it doesn't get old (at least not yet). What strikes me about this USA soccer team, is its resilience, its ability to come back from the brink. They are down, but they are not out. They've gotten a gift goal that miraculously gave them a point against England, and then became only the 21st team to come back from a 2-0 half time deficit to tie a match against Slovenia (We should have been the first to win). They had their hearts ripped out by a overmatched referee who turned what should have been a momentum launching comeback into a bitterly contested tie, and yet, they came through again.

I'm fairly new to the who soccer fan thing. I have been able to pick up a decent amount and can sound at least somewhat educated when I'm talking about the game. I'm still grasping many tactical details and the other small nuances of the game. I have however, become hooked on the sport, and trying to understand it better. This year's World Cup represents the first time I would truly consider myself a soccer fan. This morning, I went to the bar at 6:45 am local time and watched with dozens of other soccer fans, both new and old, as the USA tried to meet expectations they so often did not.

By the time the 85th minute rolled around, hope was starting to run out. Each passing second raised the tension level, and disappointment seemed just an unlucky bounce away. We've already seen these unlucky "bounces" for team USA. Today, another goal celebration was cut short due to a referee's mistaken whistle and yet hope still was there. The US had chance after chance to score the winning goal; the goal that would put us through to the round of sixteen, our first major goal of this tournament. Instead, everything seemed to be coming up short and as the seconds wound down, the US looked like it was going to falter again.

As so often happens in sports, the miraculous comes from out of nowhere. Today was no different. We gasped in horror as an Algerian cross ended up on target to a wide open attacker, and for a brief moment, it looked as though we would lose 1-0. The ball shot off the players head directly toward the goal, but fortunately it was also directly at our brilliant goalkeeper Tim Howard. Howard stopped the shot, corralled the ball, and then threw a desperation pass towards midfield where our team was pushing towards the opponents goal. American star, Landon Donovan, whose struggles and maturation process have been very well documented, took the ball in stride and streaked down the sideline. His pass found the foot of Jozy Altidore, who subsequently squared it in to Clint Dempsey. Dempsey who had earlier hit the post and had a goal disallowed by an "offsides" call, redirected it right into the Algerian keeper's chest. Again, it appeared that our last ditch effort had fallen short. Donovan, whose failure to step up when he was needed most, had faltered again. But this time, the ball bounced just out of the keeper's arms and sat at the edge of the six yard box and on to the screen flew our American hero. Donovan said, "time kinda stopped," and for all of us watching, we felt the same way.

Landon calmly placed the rebound into the bottom corner of the net which set off perhaps the biggest celebration in US soccer history. John Harkes, the former USA captain and now match analyst could barely speak, his partner in the booth had to describe the goal for him. Alexi Lalas's voice quivered as he talked about the result after the game. Donovan wiped tears from his eyes in his post game interview. In the bar, we celebrated with them, hugging strangers and high-fiving friends, yelling and chanting "U-S-A!" repeatedly.

"I've been on a long journey for the last four years, and I'm just shocked and so proud of our guys," Donovan said after the match. I speak for all my fellow friends and fans that watched today's game and can say that we are all proud too. I can't even count how many Facebook statuses reflected these sentiments.

Landon Donovan's journey and maturation aren't yet complete. Team USA still has more work to do. Today was only the first step in the right direction. But today, our star shined when the lights were at their brightest. Our team came through when disappointment felt imminent. They say failures can make us stronger. In Donovan's case, his past failures have taught him valuable lessons that he has taken to heart.

Before he finished the interview, he told Jeremy Schaap, "We believe." You know what Landon, so do the rest of us.

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