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Defining moment

June 23, 2010
Hirshey By David Hirshey
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

It was never in doubt. Except for the first 90 minutes.

But did anyone really believe the U.S. couldn't beat a team that started two guys with platinum blond hair? Or that it was going to let another hallucinating referee steal a second victory, especially with The Comeback Kid himself, Bill Clinton, watching from the stands? Or that Landon Donovan, who was as quiet as a golf announcer in the second half, wouldn't finally break through and send one screaming into the back of the net?

And this time there was no reason for the Americans to look over at the linesman to see whether his flag was raised because had it been, it's a safe bet that Clint Dempsey, bloody lip and all, would have shoved that flag down his throat.

Make no mistake, June 23, 2010, will go down as one of the defining dates in American soccer. People in the rest of the world can deride the standard of the U.S. game all they want, but now they do so at their own peril. More importantly, the 1-0 victory over Algeria plants the sport's flag even deeper in the consciousness of U.S. fans (as opposed to soccer fans) who were ready to go back to work had the Americans lost and not advanced.

I mean, consider that the 2006 tournament cost the United States $1.2 billion in lost labor because of the number of people who skipped out of work to catch the World Cup telecasts. And that team went three-and-out in that tournament. In 2010, the U.S. didn't lose a single match in the group stage and is now through to the round of 16 -- so brace yourself for a total collapse of the American economy. (Oh wait…)

And when it comes to roll-up-your-sleeves work, the U.S. showed Wednesday that it's ready to do whatever it takes for 90 minutes (or more) to get the job done. As frustrating as the boatload of blown U.S. scoring opportunities were and as porous as our defense was at times, no one can say the team's mental game isn't among the best in the world.

How many teams would have crumbled after Grand Theft Coulibaly against Slovenia, let alone in the 20th minute Wednesday when Dempsey astonishingly was deemed offside by another official who might want to look into the benefits of Lasik surgery -- or perhaps a large-print rulebook?

Yet the Americans brushed off the latest injustice as if were just a speck of dirt on their jersey. They continued to push forward for the remainder of the half, at which point they surely learned that England had gone up 1-0 on mighty Slovenia and that if the score stayed the same, they were 45 minutes from going on safari. Once again, we wonder who's writing coach Bob Bradley's halftime speeches -- Mel Gibson in "Braveheart"? Gene Hackman in "Hoosiers"? John Belushi in "Animal House"?

When the U.S. came out for the second half, it played as if its World Cup life depended on it (meanwhile, Algeria mystifyingly played as if it thought a scoreless tie was good enough). Bradley The Younger, who rescued the U.S. against Slovenia with his dramatic equalizer, once again was the combative fulcrum of the American attack. It was his defense-splitting pass to Jozy Altidore that allowed the 20-year-old forward to hold the ball long enough for Dempsey to hurtle down the middle and lash a shot off the post. When the ball caromed back to him, an entire nation reached for its defibrillators, only for Dempsey to shank the ball wide of an open goal.

How many more Wonka bars would the U.S. be given before the golden tickets to the round of 16 would belong to England and Slovenia?

As it turns out, quite a few. Benny Feilhaber, a second-half substitute, made a surging run into the box, only to be thwarted by Algerian keeper Rais M'Bolhi at the last possible second. Three minutes later, Altidore had a point-blank header saved, and in the 76th minute Bradley launched a Scud missile that M'Bolhi desperately parried. In fact, it seemed that the only thing that hadn't prevented a U.S. victory was Steve Bartman himself being in the stadium.

But as the game careened into what storied Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson likes to call "squeaky bum time," the U.S. stubbornly refused to go out of Africa. Fittingly, it was Donovan -- the American alpha dog who perhaps had the most to prove this tournament -- stepping forward to score the goal that would make believers out of fans from Pretoria to Peoria.

David Hirshey is the co-author (with Roger Bennett) of "The ESPN World Cup Companion: Everything You Need to Know About the Planet's Biggest Sporting Event."