In the 36th minute of Wednesday's World Cup game between the United States and Algeria, ESPN game announcer man Ian Drake — one of the two British play-by-play men hired out of the English Premier League for the World Cup — mentioned that the Rolling Stones long ago (1966) released the song “19th Nervous Breakdown,” a great and fortuitous reference for a game mounting with tension and anxiety with each passing second and no score.
The day had started with promise for the United States, but also uncertainty against a mysterious foe. Win and you’re in, lose and you’re out, tie and your fate is left up to the outcome of the other Group C match between Slovenia and England. Those were the odds facing the red, white and blue Men’s National Team (MNT).
For U.S. fans everywhere, the first half was exhilarating, at times frustrating, then turned “I can’t believe this is happening again.” The second half was even worse, wondering if this would just be one of the days when fate would not let the far more dominant side find back of the net. But with time expiring, the two greatest players ever in MNT history — Landon Donovan and Tim Howard — stepped up for the most important goal in modern history. The tally in the 92nd minute lifted the Americans to first place in its group for the time since 1930 and send them to the second round for the first time since 2002, when they got to the quarterfinals.
As they have done throughout the tournament, the cardiac kids had their fans’ blood pressure rising to the verge of arrest with 19 incredible moments all leading to the most dramatic and deserving result since the MNT became relevant again in 1994. Here they are:
1. U.S. coach Bob Bradley rolls the dice with a defense that has never played together before. Three players had played every minute of the tournament — Steve Cherundolo (right back), Jay DeMerit (center back), and Carlos Bocanegra (center back). However, the insertion of Jonathan Bornstein (left back) — a player who had not played all that well in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup — meant Oguchi Onyewu sat on the bench and moved the captain, Bocanegra, from left back to center back. It was a bold move that would prove to pay off as the U.S. kept its first clean sheet in 12 matches.
2. In the sixth minute, the U.S. almost allowed an early goal for the third straight game as a bouncing ball slipped by DeMerit, allowing Algerian forward Rafik Djebbour to get the ball around the penalty spot and fire a shot off the crossbar, Algeria’s best chance of the game.
3. In the 20th minute, Jozy Altidore — who for me had his best game in a U.S. uniform — held the ball on for Michael Bradley. Although Bradley was tackled at the top of the box, he tapped the ball out to another new starter, Herculez Gomez. From close range, Gomez had his shot stopped, but the ball came right back to him, setting up moment No. 4.
4. Here we go again. Getting the ball back, Gomez slapped the ball to the far post for the waiting Clint Dempsey, who easily tapped the ball in. However, the side official waived Dempsey for offsides when clearly on replay (via ESPN's great new all-angles camera shot) he was level, denying the U.S. another goal for a terrible call.
5. Although it didn’t happen in the U.S. game, it still had plenty of meaning for both the MNT and Algeria. A new starter for England, Jermain Defoe (a player I thought should have been starting all tournament), scored the first goal of the match vs. Slovenia in the 23rd minute, volleying in a close-range shot on a brilliant cross from James Milner. If the scores had stayed as they were at that time, that goal would have knocked the U.S. out of the tournament and made England the Group C winner with Slovenia the second-place finisher. Clearly, it wasn’t over.
6. The U.S. had so many opportunities, and in the 35th minute great movement from Altidore to Donovan to Dempsey nearly ended in a goal. But a late challenge just got enough of Dempsey’s shot to allow Algerian keeper Rais M’Bolhi (terrific all game) to make the save.
7. In the 36th minute with Donovan cutting in on the right side by M’Bolhi, a bouncing ball popped up to Altidore, who skied his volley over goal on an open net, prompting Drake to make his “19th Nervous Breakdown” comment.
8. Finally, Algeria moved the ball out of its own end as Karim Matmour tested Howard with a good shot, but the American was there to make the save in the 38th minute.
9. In a free-flowing open game, Dempsey slipped but hit a sliding and knuckling shot that gave M’Bolhi problems even though he was able to block it just before half in the 43rd minute.
10. With the U.S. numbers mostly forward, Algeria nearly caught the MNT on the counter after Dempsey’s shot as Karim Ziani — Algeria’s most skilled player — latched onto a shot that did not miss by much, just going wide right by a foot.
11. Coach Bradley’s decisions were spot on all game, and to start the second half he subbed Benny Feilhaber on for Gomez, pushing Dempsey forward as the sub went out wide. Feilhaber was a terrific influence for the U.S. in the second half pushing forward, getting in space, and delivering balls that upset the Algerian defense.
12. Searching, lurking, waiting and being patient — everything except for the final outcome in the 56th minute. Breaking down the left side, Altidore beat a defender then sent in a cross that Dempsey ran onto. His pace allowed him to go by his Algerian defender and his shot beat M’Bolhi. But like salt to an open wound, his shot tortuously hit the inside of the post and bounced out for a rebound, and Dempsey’s second attempt was wildly over the top.
13. In the 63rd minute, Bocanegra made the defensive play of the game denying a wonderful Algerian cross into the danger zone between the penalty spot and the six-yard box in an area Howard could not get to. The U.S. captain slid in and knocked the ball away with an Algerian forward waiting to mop up anything that got through.
14. Another good sub by Bradley as Edson Buddle came on for defensive midfielder Maurice Edu — who had a good game — in the 64th. The change in tactics again allowed Feilhaber to move into a more attacking, free-flowing middle role, put Dempsey in his best spot back out wide, and move the newest sub up top. Buddle had an immediate impact, his first touch was to hold the ball on the wing and wait for Feilhaber to make a busting and brilliant run down the right side of the box before his near post shot was just denied by a great save from M’Bolhi in net.
15. With Cherundolo pushing forward, his initial pass was blocked just outside the box, but he followed it to the left side and played an inviting ball in for Altidore and Buddle. Although Altidore just missed the header, Buddle was there firing his header unfortunately right at M’Bolhi as again the U.S. was denied on the doorstep in the 68th minute.
16. Still holding onto the primary amount of attacking possession (the numbers said the U.S. held a slight 51-49 percent advantage over Algeria, but it felt like a lot more), Altidore sent a low, hard cross from the right side of the box that Algerian defender Madjid Bougherra had a rough touch on, nearly flicking the ball into his own net, but instead out for a corner.
17. As the game wore on, the Algerians definitely seemed content to earn a draw and play spoiler rather than attack and look for their own win, and they did this with delay tactics and hard fouls that earned many yellow cards. In the 77th Dempsey felt the brunt of one of those fouls just on the outer left-middle side of the box setting up a great free kick scoring opportunity. The set piece was simple but masterful as Dempsey tapped to Donovan, who stopped the ball for Bradley run up to. His shot was struck with venom but again right at the keeper, as M’Bolhi could only parry the ball away.
18. The final 13 minutes leading up to extra time were desperate moments for the U.S., which seemed to resort to the long ball, kick-and-run tactics that are tough to keep possession on. Lacking much bite, the team could only hope for as much extra time as possible and the fourth official delivered with four extra minutes — plenty of time for any classy side to score a goal.
19. After comfortably coming away with a header by one of the Algerian forwards, Howard had the presence of mind to quickly outlet the ball to Donovan to catch Algeria with minimal numbers back on a fast break-like counter attack. Donovan dribbled down the right side and forwarded a pass to Altidore. Altidore then struck a low cross with traffic in front of goal and Dempsey redirected it, but M’Bolhi stuffed the shot. The rebound came out in front, allowing Donovan — the greatest player in U.S. history, who did not stop running the entire play — to mop up the scraps with a calm and collected side-footed shot into the far left side-netting — a shot that was really more a pass.
Nothing could have been better for the game of soccer in the States, simply nothing. A landmark moment as the goal again not only advanced the Americans to the knock-out phase but allowed them to win Group C — a very important outcome.
Taking a look at the bracket, the road to the semifinals will not be easy. The U.S. will play Ghana in the Round of 16. If the U.S. can win that match, it will face the winner of Uruguay and South Korea — two terrific-looking teams in group play — in the quarterfinals. However, you have to be happy about that as a member of the Red, White and Blue Army because you avoid Argentina, Brazil, Spain and the Netherlands — three of the other four likely teams to make up the final four.
A historic day, and we all go marching on.