The Ringer’s 22 Goals: The Story of the World Cup, a podcast by Brian Phillips, tells the story of some of the most iconic goals and players in the history of the men’s FIFA World Cup. Every Wednesday, until the end of Qatar 2022, we’ll publish an adapted version of each 22 Goals episode. Today’s story involves a breakthrough moment for American men’s soccer.
1. Sunset in Rio
June 17, 2014. I’m in Rio.
[Extremely 1950s travelogue voice.] That’s Rio de Janeiro, the wonder city. Gateway to Brazil. Its startling beauty is dramatically framed by nature.
Strong silver wings have carried me, an American tourist, to Rio’s modern airport, and for several days I’ve been wandering around, taking in the nature and the startling beauty, etc. I’m in town for the World Cup. Right now, it’s evening, and I’m sitting on the beach at Ipanema.
Tall and tan and young and lovely. Couldn’t be me.
I’m in Rio for the World Cup, but I’m only kind of at the World Cup. I waited too long to apply for media credentials. I don’t actually have access to any games.
I’m good at my job.
So I’m lurking on the fringes of the tournament. Taking in the atmosphere. That’s writer-speak for spying on people.
At breakfast, I spy on the Russians. The hotel where I’m staying in Flamengo is full of Russian fans for some reason, all of whom seem to have been issued identical white Russia windbreakers at the airport. At breakfast, at any given moment, it’s me and what looks like 15 mixed-age water-polo teams.
I’m spying on people. Looking at details. Watching not a whole lot of soccer. Just catching glimpses here and there on TV.
It turns out that this is actually a wonderful way to experience a World Cup. I recommend it. You get to walk around following the “FUCK FIFA” signs that Brazilians have stenciled onto light poles. You get to contemplate the coconuts with straws stabbed into them that pile up around trash cans in the tourist zones. You get to watch two very serious Argentine women painting blue-and-white flags on each other’s faces, in a packed subway car full of singing fans on the way to the Maracaña.
Tonight I have come to Ipanema for a very specific reason. The reason is that the Brazil men’s national team is currently playing a World Cup game. They’re playing against Mexico in Fortaleza, in their second match in Group A.
And obviously I’m not going. And it occurs to me that Ipanema is one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s also very crowded, most of the time. But if there’s ever a moment when you could have it all to yourself, it’s probably when Brazil is playing a World Cup game on its home soil.
And this turns out to be true. Ipanema is not absolutely deserted, but it’s pretty close. So I’m sitting here on this almost empty beach, watching the waves roll in, watching the sun set. And every once in a while there’s a big pop-pop-pop from someone setting off fireworks, either down the beach or from the balcony of one of the buildings behind me, and I keep thinking Brazil must have scored, and from the number of fireworks explosions I’m thinking Brazil must be beating Mexico by at least two or three goals.
This is all very beautiful. Ipanema is so beautiful it doesn’t seem real even when you’re sitting there. You feel like you’re sitting in an illustration of you sitting there in a children’s book. And sunset is like the child slowly closing the cover of the book.
But there’s something innately a little sad, a little melancholy, about sitting by yourself on a beach as the sun goes down. So after a while I get up and go for a walk.
This is a series about joy. I know I’ve said that a bunch of times since we started.
I go for a walk. I’m gonna go see what Rio looks like while Brazil is playing a World Cup game.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the beach in Rio. Obviously it’s a whole scene. Just above where the sand begins there are these big wide sidewalks with sort of jazzy inlaid patterns in the stone. Usually full of people walking. Taking pictures. Rollerblading. Generally being tall and/or tan and/or young and/or lovely.
But tonight, there’s hardly anyone out, because Brazil is playing a World Cup game.
In Ipanema, along this stone path, there are these regularly spaced outdoor bars. Picture streamers flying from a little hut, stools at a counter, maybe some tables.
So I come up to one of these bars. And there’s a group of people clustered around it. Way more people than I’ve seen anywhere else all evening—maybe 15, 20 people.
And they’re all staring in the same direction. They’re staring at the tiny TV in the corner of the bar, which is showing the Brazil-Mexico game. The bartender has her back to the customers and is also watching the TV.
It turns out I was wrong. Brazil isn’t winning the match by two or three goals. They aren’t winning at all. We’re tied nil-nil. Just 12 or 15 minutes left in the game.
There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air. Everyone in this little group of onlookers is on edge waiting to see if Brazil can find a thrilling late goal. Brazil’s obviously favored in the match. It’s a great result for Mexico if the game ends in a draw, a disappointing result for the home team.
I stick around and watch the people watching the game. It’s a mixed group. You’ve got the bartender. You’ve got a guy in a backpack who looks like he’s coming home from work. You’ve got a shirtless youth—it’s the beach, he’s barefoot. And then you’ve got five cops, basically, members of the Guarda Municipal, wearing military uniforms and fluorescent vests. They’re also watching the match.
Everyone’s quiet. The clock is ticking. The sky is getting darker. There’s still time for Brazil to nab a winner. Neymar is on the pitch. You can feel this group of random strangers waiting for it to happen. You can feel the whole city waiting for it to happen. Hands are clasped. Breath is held.
And I’m thinking that the explosion, when Brazil scores, it’s going to be amazing. The balconies across the street are going to fill up with people singing and setting off fireworks. Horns will be honked until they cannot honk any more. All these people around me are going to hug each other. They may hug me! I’m imagining a full Brandi Chastain, 1999 women’s World Cup final, last-second eruption of joy.
This is a series about joy. And tonight … it doesn’t happen.
The sun goes down. The feeling of eager expectation sinks into resigned disappointment. Brazil can’t find a goal. The whistle blows. The match ends.
Outside the bar, we go our separate ways. I wander off into the neighborhood and buy a slice of pizza and a beer, which is tall and tan and young and lovely. And the cover closes on the children’s book.
2. About Joy
This is a series about joy. We talk about euphoria in every installment, to the point that I worry it risks seeming predictable. Like I’m making it sound as if these moments are clockwork. Like they’re routine.
But one of the truest qualities of joy is its elusiveness. Its rarity.
We go searching for joy. That’s what being a sports fan is. But searching for joy doesn’t mean you find it. You also have to hope that it finds you.
Zadie Smith, in her great essay “Joy” —an essay I have never once read without crying—says she experiences a little pleasure every day but has felt real joy only five or six times in her life.
She’s talking about a kind of joy that’s probably not quite the same thing as sports joy. Or maybe it is. I don’t know.
But even in sports, joy loves to escape. It loves to slip away. It’s like a transcendently gifted musician with intense stage fright—it cancels most of its shows.
Joy isn’t predictable. It’s lightning. Which makes it all the more special, all the more precious, when it happens to fall where you are.
The other thing I worry about is that because I’m constantly talking about peak moments, you’ll think they’re my default mode for experiencing soccer. Like I’m just constantly running around in circles and losing all feeling in my face.
When actually, the sort of indeterminate, everyday, unfulfilled feeling of that game in Rio, that hopeful melancholy—I like that feeling. I feel at home in that feeling. Maybe you do, too, especially if, like me, you remember what it was like to be an American soccer fan in the 2000s.
I don’t want to get into the whole question of the United States as a soccer country, or not a soccer country, or whatever. But I think it’s pretty obvious that you don’t typically become a soccer fan in the U.S. because it’s the easiest route to triumphant happiness. Obviously—obviously—the U.S. women’s team has produced no shortage of triumphant moments over the years, but even those moments were partly overshadowed by the general cultural neglect of the game.
And as for the men’s team …
Being a soccer fan in the U.S. has never been the path of least resistance leading to joy. We’re not generally conditioned to expect it.
And that’s OK with me. I’m happy chasing the weird shadow of the game, most of the time. Not just peak sensation.
I bring all this up because what we’re here to talk about today is a time when joy did befall American fans. We’re here to talk about one of the most face-numbing, run-around-in-circles peak sensations in the history of American soccer.
We’re here to talk about Landon Donovan’s last-gasp winner against Algeria in the 2010 men’s World Cup in South Africa.
And I want to make it clear just how spectacularly atypical this event was. How borderline unprecedented it was for fans of the U.S. men’s national team to experience this kind of eruption of joy. How unlooked-for, how all but unhoped-for this event was.
This is the rarest of treasures. This is the pearl of great price. This was something that was never going to happen, and it happened anyway. And in doing so, it introduced thousands, maybe millions of American fans, unexpectedly and all at once, to the joy of soccer.
And maybe—maybe—changed the course of the game in this country.
This is not a soccer essay, this is a sudden rush of blood to the head. Let’s talk about the most thrilling one second in American history.
3. Down and Out in the Animal Kingdom
OK, not the most thrilling one second, probably. Robert E. Lee signing the Confederate surrender at Appomattox was probably equally thrilling. It’s tied for first.
To understand why Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria was so exciting, why it unscrewed the tops of so many heads all at once, you have to understand the basic evolution of American soccer during the late 20th century. And it turns out a good way to do that is to follow the life of one Landon Timothy Donovan himself. We’ll go quick.
Landon Donovan. Soft-eyed, enigmatic, brilliant, frustrating, unintentionally controversial Landon Donovan. Widely seen as the best American player of his generation. Also, at the start of the 2010 World Cup, a player American fans just do not always know how to read or appreciate.
Landon Donovan. Born in 1982 in Ontario, California. This is slightly confusing, because his dad, Tim, is Canadian. Former hockey player. That’s redundant. Landon has dual Canadian citizenship through him. And he’s born in Ontario … California.
Life is mysterious and amazing.
He’s a twin, Landon Donovan. He has a twin sister. Grows up in the Inland Empire. 1980s. The youth soccer revolution is fully underway in the United States.
It’s easy to forget this now, but for many years, basically for the whole back end of the last century, America has this very neurotic relationship with soccer.
The U.S. finished third at the first World Cup—that was in 1930—but quickly fell behind most the rest of the world. We upset England at the 1950 World Cup. That’s the Joe Gaetjens game (we did a whole installment on it; seriously, look at the archive; don’t be a stranger). And after that, we did not so much as qualify for another men’s World Cup for 40 years. Next appearance was 1990. Long break!
American women’s soccer, of course, is dominating the world during the late 20th century, but that’s not enough for the dudes who drive sports media. So this idea takes hold, in those intervening years, that soccer is un-American. When you’re the world’s most confident superpower and you’re bad at something, you can’t be bad at it just because you’re bad at it. You have to be bad at it because it’s a secret global conspiracy to emasculate Our Boys by making them play socialist pansy-ball or whatever.
Cue decades of phoned-in newspaper columns asserting that soccer is a game for mincing ballerinas too delicate to tackle each other while encased in 80 pounds of protective body armor. Sports Illustrated had a dedicated beat, pretty much, for this kind of writing in the ’90s and early ’00s. It’s as dumb as it sounds.
I kind of treasure it now, if I’m honest! It’s just so extravagantly and pointlessly rude.
Let’s say you hate a restaurant. Let’s make up a name for it. Let’s call it “Cafe Gemini.” You hate Cafe Gemini. Other people love it. Doesn’t affect you in any way if other people enjoy eating at Cafe Gemini. But it gnaws at you. You can’t stand it. You can’t stand it to the point that one day you walk right into the main dining room at Cafe Gemini. You go up to the buffet table.
And you fart in the soup.
I quote from the revered SI writer Frank Deford, who once wrote: “It is not for us to feel guilty that we are out of step. Rather, it is for us to feel sorry for the rest of the world that it is not lucky enough to have games as good as the ones we have.”
[Massive, ear-splitting fart sound.]
I quote from the admired Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who once said, “How good can any game be when you can’t use your hands? Hands are what separate us from the animal kingdom.”
[Fart sound so deep and powerful that leaves flutter down from nearby trees.]
I quote from the goateed TV man Jim Rome, who once said, “My son is not playing soccer. I will hand him ice skates and a shimmering sequined blouse before I hand him a soccer ball.”
[Fart sound that would not be out of place as the foghorn on a large ocean-going vessel.]
Multiple problems in that statement, Jim!
Just big, wet gas bubbles roiling the surface of a perfectly tasty lobster bisque. Fantastic comedy.
But that’s one half of America’s neurotic relationship to soccer. The other half, of course, is that starting around the 1980s, every little kid in the U.S. grows up playing soccer. Millions of American dads spend the week nodding along to pundits who say soccer is for pinko daylilies insufficiently mindful of what separates humanity from the animal kingdom. Then these same dads spend their weekends cheering passionately for their own kids at youth pinko daylily games.
A truly weird situation. Millions of American children happily playing the paradigmatically anti-American game.
Young Landon Donovan grows up playing it. He’s good at it. How good? He scores seven goals in his first game.
That’s pretty good. You get two Capri Suns.
1994. The World Cup comes to the United States. People watch. A number of people eat at Cafe Gemini for the first time, and they’re like, Huh. This is pretty good. I don’t know why the dude outside with his pants around his ankles keeps screaming about the stinky bisque.
1996. Major League Soccer plays its first season. Now we’ve got a pro league. Are people watching it? No. But it exists.
There’s a new level of emphasis. A new level of organization.
Landon Donovan goes to high school in Redlands, California, but in 1997, the year he turns 15, he joins the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program.
He’s part of the first class ever to do the youth residency program at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. Which is a big deal because IMG is mostly known as a tennis academy—Andre Agassi, Serena Williams, etc.—and the start of a soccer program there signals a new, at least tennis-adjacent level of investment in U.S. soccer.
Landon Donovan excels in these programs. At 17, he leads the U.S. men’s under-17 team to a fourth-place finish at the FIFA U-17 World Championships. He’s named the player of the tournament.
In the same year—1999—the U.S. women’s national team wins the World Cup. Final played in front of 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl. Penalty shootout win over China. That’s Brandi Chastain and the sports bra. And Americans think this is pretty cool. They think Mia Hamm is cool. They think Julie Foudy is cool.
I think they’re cool. This is a series about joy.
Maybe—a line of thinking tentatively emerges—maybe the real reason soccer is seen as un-American is not that hands are what distinguish us from the animal kingdom. Maybe it’s that Americans like winning.
We have to be the best. Footnote one, see colonialism. And watching the men’s team, historically and geopolitically, has felt, to Americans, like reading a Justice League comic in which the Batman and Superman are consistently outwitted by some generic low-level crooks. Like some Sluggo-from-Nancy-ass comic guys with dots on their chins to indicate stubble, and their whole master plan involves stealing bags from the airport, and they (the crooks/the Costa Rica men’s national soccer team) keep making the supposed heroes look foolish.
And American fans are like, This sucks! Crime fighting as an enterprise must be un-American. And then Batgirl and Wonder Woman defeat the Joker, and we’re like, Oh, maybe crime fighting rules.
Just a deeply complicated state of affairs.
But by the late ’90s, the structures are sort of starting to fall into place for American men’s soccer, and the talent is sort of starting to find them. In 1998, the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup in France—fantastic—but loses all three games in the group stage. Finishes last behind Yugoslavia and Iran.
I said sort of.
You can get a sense of the global standing of American soccer at this point if you listen to the announcers during Iran’s 2-1 win over the United States. They’re surprised, but they’re not that surprised.
Four years later, in 2002, 20-year-old Landon Donovan is called up to play in his first senior men’s World Cup.
There is a question hanging over this essay like a well-worn pair of Dockers over a bowl of minestrone.
The question is, Will soccer ever be big in the United States? Will the game ever enjoy the popularity here that it enjoys in most of the rest of the world?
This is the question—this is the anxiety—behind anti-soccer sentiment in this country. It’s also the promise of the rise of youth soccer.
Are we a sleeping soccer giant, or are we truly culturally unsuited to the game? What would that even mean?
4. Rattlesnake Tee
2002. Pivotal year in the history of U.S. men’s soccer. Two things happen in 2002 to highlight the uncertain status of the game of soccer in this country.
Number one. In late May 2002, not long before the World Cup kicks off in Japan and South Korea, a photo shoot is published in The New York Times Magazine. It features key members of the U.S. men’s national soccer team.
The photos are by the Dutch photographer and former Armani creative director Matthias Vriens. The guys are modeling clothes. It’s a style spread. You know the kind of magazine piece where the prices of the clothes are listed in the photo captions, and they’re all absurdly expensive? Rattlesnake tee by Gucci, $2,750? That kind of thing.
This photo shoot … is bad. It’s … awkward. It’s so awkward that it now has a kind of mythic status on the internet. Every once in a while, you come across an image from it, and it’s as if the mists part and a whole magical realm of pure awkwardness is revealed to you.
It’s Jock Duckface Brigadoon.
I’ve written about this photo shoot before. I still carry the trauma inside my heart. I’m not gonna go too deeply into it now.
Suffice it to say there’s a photo of Clint Mathis in an unbuttoned polka-dotted $400 Tom Ford shirt. He’s got artfully mussed hair, and a look on his face like he’s simultaneously aroused, confused, and prepared to beat the shit out of a kid on the playground who just called him a boogerface. He’s leaning with his elbows up on what’s probably the top of a soccer goal, but the way the photo’s cropped, it looks like a farm gate.
Like the photo is shot from the perspective of a small pig who owes Clint Mathis money. And Clint Mathis is here to collect.
And it also kind of looks like he’s farting in a tureen of soup? Lower half of his body is not pictured. There could easily be a bowl of French onion down there.
Just a deeply disturbing image on every level.
Landon, unfortunately, participates in this photo shoot. I’m not gonna drag it out—it’s the drinking-fountain photo. Do you know the iconic Landon Donovan drinking-fountain photo? The one where he’s stooped over a cylindrical outdoor drinking fountain, and he’s got his mouth open on the jet of water arcing up from the spigot, and the camera is tight on his face as the water sort of dribbles down his lower lip, and he looks like he’s never encountered water before? Like someone is giving him step-by-step directions for drinking a liquid, and he’s in the middle of the process, and he has no idea where this is going to go?
I do not want to discount the possibility that this photo shoot is a work of subversive, possibly camp, genius. What I know is that the players uniformly look baffled and miserable to be doing it. And it crystallizes all sorts of weird American cultural anxieties around soccer and masculinity and sexuality and drinking-fountain usage. And it strikes many people as ridiculous.
So on the one hand, the USMNT is pulling valuable space in The New York Times Magazine. On the other hand, people are laughing at them for it.
All right. That’s the first thing that happened in 2002 to highlight the uncertain status of soccer in this country. What’s the second thing? The second thing is marginally less embarrassing. The second thing is that the team goes to Asia and makes the quarterfinals of the goddamn World Cup.
What? How? They beat Mexico in the Round of 16. Unbelievable.
Landon Donovan scores multiple goals. At 20, he’s a slippery, speedy, 5-foot-8 attacker, and he’s named the best young player of the entire tournament.
It’s the best result by any American men’s soccer team in 72 years. No photo shoot can make this ridiculous. Or at least not that ridiculous. The U.S. men’s national team is on the rise, and Landon Donovan is the most promising young American talent in living memory.
And English match announcers are sounding—I don’t know, a little nonplussed!
OK! Future so bright you gotta stay hydrated, if you are physically capable of doing so.
But then things go … I don’t know. Not wrong, exactly. Just a little sideways.
Landon is playing in Germany. He’s signed with Bayer Leverkusen—amazing, an American player in a legit European league!—and he doesn’t like it. He’s homesick. Are star athletes allowed to get homesick? He comes back. First temporarily, to play for San Jose, then permanently, to play for the L.A. Galaxy.
He stars for the L.A. Galaxy. But it still feels like a bit of a comedown. A bit of potential going unfulfilled. Potentially.
There’s something about Landon. There’s a reserve. There’s a hesitancy. There’s, at times, a kind of discomfort in his own skin that leaves fans unsure what to make of him.
He doesn’t fit neatly into any of the stereotypes about what a star athlete should be like. He doesn’t always seem like he wants the spotlight, which is a phenomenally non-relatable trait for an American at the height of the reality TV era. He doesn’t always seem happy to be playing the game at all.
At the 2006 World Cup, he doesn’t score any goals. The U.S. crashes out at the group stage. Landon is widely blamed for the failure to advance.
So by the time we get to 2010. Wow. He’s somehow both the most admired and the least admired player in American soccer. He’s the biggest star and also the player whom fans don’t feel they can count on. He’s a question mark, poised between revolution and disappointment. Just like men’s soccer in the United States.
5. Buzz Buzz Buzz (I Wonder Why He Does)
2010. Men’s World Cup. South Africa.
This is the vuvuzela World Cup. Remember the big sort of kazoo slash trumpet noisemakers that made every match feel like it was being attacked by a horde of evil bees?
Where’s the Justice League? Oh, they’re busy trying to catch the guy who steals bags from the airport.
MLS is doing pretty well in 2010. It’s established. David Beckham plays for the L.A. Galaxy! The institutions are continuing to take root.
American soccer culture is starting to feel like a real thing in 2010. There’s an MLS team in Philadelphia—the Union played their first game in 2010—that exists basically because a local supporter group, the Sons of Ben, were so vocal that the league was like, Wow, we’d better give them an actual club to cheer for. Within a few years, a kid named Brenden Aaronson will join Philly’s youth academy, graduate to the first team as a teenager, and eventually become one of the most important players on the U.S. team in Qatar.
We’ve got soccer Twitter in 2010. I was on soccer Twitter in 2010. I think? I don’t really remember eras of Twitter. Possibly because my brain was destroyed by Twitter.
More importantly, we’ve got—arguably, but it’s a good argument—our first generation of legitimate home-grown American soccer stars.
We’ve got Landon Donovan. Human question mark. The big controversy with Landon Donovan around this time is that he talked some shit about his L.A. Galaxy teammate David Beckham for the soccer journalist (and my pal) Grant Wahl’s book about David Beckham. The Beckham Experiment. Good book.
David Beckham, obviously, is one of the most famous humans ever to gaze seductively into all the cameras on earth. Landon said he was a bad teammate. People are like, Hm, is Landon a hero for standing up to selfish prima donna David Beckham? Or is Landon a coward for airing his concerns in a book rather than tracking inspirational sports hero Beckham down at a photo shoot and confronting him directly? Possibly while threateningly gripping the top of a farm gate … an American soccer speciality?
Who else have we got, in 2010? We’ve got Clint Dempsey. I love Clint Dempsey. Everyone loves Clint Dempsey. Pretty much the opposite of everything I just said about Landon Donovan. Clint rather than Landon. Texas rather than California.
Clint Dempsey just goes at you, man. Grew up in a trailer park. Grew up playing on dirt fields in matches dominated by Latin American immigrants. Real hard zero fucks given energy from Clint Dempsey. His sister, Jennifer, a promising youth tennis player, died at the age of 16, in 1995, and this motivated him to excel at soccer. He spent a few years at Furman University before finally breaking through into the national soccer team setup.
In 2007, he moved to Fulham, in the English Premier League, and he did not get homesick. He thrived. In the last game of the 2007 season he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Liverpool that saves Fulham from relegation.
In 2008 he scored two goals against Chelsea. Are we allowed to do that? Are Americans allowed to score two goals against Chelsea?
Clint Dempsey. Not a human question mark. A human exclamation mark.
OK, who’s next?
We’ve got Tim Howard in 2010. Goalkeeper. You know him now as the lavishly bearded soccer analyst for NBC Sports. Beard’s not in the picture yet. Tim Howard’s from Jersey. Six-foot-three. Real intense This is Sparta! glower in the heat of battle. That’s a Frank Borghi callback. Seriously, visit the archive. Tim Howard is one of those players who’s always solid—always reliable—but who has the ability in certain situations to phase into another plane of existence and play at a berserk and impossible level.
And that’s exactly what happens in South Africa in the first group-stage match against England.
This is Golden Generation England, keep in mind. Wayne Rooney. Can Lampard play with Gerrard? Fabio Capello. Those guys.
American fans are poised between the hope of 2002 and the despair of 2006, between the hope of cheering for the U.S. women’s team and the despair of having once listened to Jim Rome in a Firestone waiting room. We’re watching through our fingers to find out whether we’re still making progress or whether we’re about to slip back into 70 years of soccer obscurity.
And the team … doesn’t look great. Defense is shaky. Tim Howard makes one critical save after another. Luckily England also doesn’t look great. Clint Dempsey scores from long range in the 40th minute when Robert Green, the England goalkeeper, fumbles an easy save.
In the commentator’s shriek, we hear the sound of all England recoiling in horror.
1-1 draw. Great result for the U.S. But nothing is decided.
The U.S. draws with Slovenia, 2-2. The final score should be 3-2 United States, but the officials disallow a Maurice Edu goal for extremely unclear reasons, to put it gently, in the 85th minute.
Bad call. It happens. We’re not gonna dwell on it, because this is a series about joy.
England draws with Algeria, 0-0.
Group C at this point is a Southern lawyer’s underwear collection. It’s a group of draws.
Of all the jokes your dad has ever texted me, I think that one might be my favorite.
6. Hope As Labor
So. Heading into the final matchday of the group stage, the U.S. and England are both sitting on two points, behind Slovenia, which has four points, and ahead of Algeria, which has one. Tight. I’m not gonna go into the math of qualification for the knockout stage. Just keep it simple and remember that the Americans need a win in the third match against Algeria to clinch a place in the next round.
It’s a cliché to say that everything is riding on this game. But sometimes the cliché is true. Sometimes it feels true.
It feels true that the developments of 30 years of American soccer history are reaching some kind of crisis point in this one match. The state of men’s soccer in America. Can we do this? Can we hang with the rest of the world at this? Can American fans feel like we’re part of this, part of the World Cup, a factor, or do we have to go on feeling vaguely apologetic for being American and enjoying this game?
The question mark that is Landon Donovan is also at play in this match. He’s the biggest American soccer star of this and many other generations. But is he even a soccer star? Can he come through in a big game? Is he too mild? Is he too sensitive? Is he too much of what all those old, out-of-touch, tureen-bubbling sportswriters think soccer players are like?
Does he understand the difference between humans and the animal kingdom?
Side note, but oh my God, that Dan Shaughnessy quote just gets funnier every time I read it. Hands are what separate us from the animal kingdom. Just a gem. Someone introduce Dan Shaughnessy to an orangutan.
June 23, 2010. Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa. Relatively small crowd. About 36,000 people. Thirty-six thousand people blowing vuvuzelas sounds like 22 billion people blowing vuvuzelas.
Bill Clinton is in the stands. He’s not blowing a vuvuzela, presumably. How different is a vuvuzela from a saxophone?
Here we go.
Algeria is probably the weakest team in Group C. I think that’s fair to say. The U.S. players certainly felt that way, and I know this because Landon Donovan later said, “We felt like we were playing the weakest opponent in our group.”
But they don’t come out playing like they’re weak. Karim Matmour gets a shot off in the first minute of the game—yikes—which scarily flies over the crossbar. In the sixth minute of the match, Rafik Djebbour hits the crossbar. Double yikes.
Match goes back and forth. We have chances. They have chances. Hérculez Gómez, the American forward, forces a save from the Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’bolhi. Landon has a shot blocked. Jozy Altidore has a chance to knock in the rebound but skies the ball over. Tim Howard saves a 25-yard shot from Matmour.
It’s a pretty good match, actually. A lot of back and forth. Bill Clinton got his money’s worth.
We are scoreless at halftime. England is beating Slovenia, by the way, in the other match in Group C. We absolutely have to win to advance.
One hour into the game, Clint Dempsey has a great scoring chance. He hits the post. On the other end, Karim Ziani almost scores. Shoots just wide. Algeria is playing tough. Alexi Lalas, the former USMNT defender turned analyst, later talked about how impressed he was with the Algerians. He said, “They were sons of bitches. And I say that in a good way. … I wasn’t prepared for how badass they were.”
Seconds tick by. We hit the 90-minute mark.
Everyone’s exhausted. The players are exhausted. The commentators are exhausted. Around the United States, in bars, in living rooms, in the secret soccer-watching lairs of curmudgeonly sports columnists who hate soccer—maybe they all get together and watch in one place?—around the United States, fans are exhausted.
It’s a strange thing about hope that in the long term, hope makes life easier. But in the short term, when you’re hoping from one second to the next, when you’re hoping for something right now, hope is a labor.
Hope is work.
You’re waiting for the phone to ring. You’re waiting for the flight to land. You’re waiting for the last seven to spin up on the slot machine. It’s work. American fans are exhausted from years of accumulated short-term hope.
I don’t know how Bill Clinton’s feeling. He may be OK.
But it’s clear now that the match is going to end in a scoreless draw. Group of draws. Why, I declare.
England has just finished off Slovenia, 1-0, minutes earlier. England will win the group. Slovenia will be second. We’ll be third and will fail to get out of the group stage.
Then, in the 91st minute, Tim Howard gets the ball and throws a quick outlet pass to Landon Donovan, who takes off running up the pitch.
Landon’s got three guys running with him. Edson Buddle on the left. Jozy Altidore on the right. And Clint Dempsey in the middle. They’re tearing down the pitch. Just outside the area, Landon passes to Altidore. Dempsey is now open in the middle of the box. Altidore crosses to Dempsey. M’Bohli, the goalkeeper, comes flailing in toward Dempsey.
Dempsey shoots. M’Bohli blocks the shot.
The ball is loose in the area. Landon crashes into the box.
Do you remember the question we asked earlier? The pair of Dockers question. The question is, Will soccer ever be big in the United States? Will soccer ever equal, or surpass, the popularity of the NFL?
Will Jim Rome ever realize that he’s afraid of sparkly leotards only because he’s projecting his own insecurity?
And the answer—right now, in this moment, as Landon Donovan is racing desperately toward the ball in the 91st minute of a must-win game—the answer is who gives a shit?
It was never the right question. It was the question that kept getting asked, for decades. Never the right one.
The right question is: What can this game mean to American fans? What can this game offer American fans? What are we in this for?
Landon Donovan gets to the ball. Landon Donovan shoots. Landon Donovan knocks the ball into the net. 1-0 United States.
Absolute mayhem. You have seen, perhaps, the viral YouTube videos of reactions to this goal around the U.S. In sports bars. In living rooms. In secret columnist basement lairs.
Just picture cellphone cameras shaking like there’s an earthquake while everyone in view screams and clasps their hands to their mouth, and drinks go flying, and like, every bag of chips in the United States explodes at once, and people are pouring out onto the street.
And Ian Darke—the British commentator instantly becomes an American sports legend, for reacting like this:
Dempsey is denied again. And Donovan has scored! Oh, can you believe this! Go, go USA! Certainly through! Oh, it’s incredible! You could not write a script like this!
And it’s just a release of every pent-up feeling. Every moment of frustration as an American soccer fan.
Every night when you went to the beach and waited for the miracle, and the miracle didn’t come.
Should I tell you where I was when I watched this goal? It’s not a good story. I was watching alone in my apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because I was blogging about the game. I’d moved my desk out into the living room so I could type and face the TV at the same time.
And when it happened … I don’t really remember what I did. I kinda blacked out.
But I went back just now and looked at what I wrote after the match. I’m sorry to quote myself—that’s not a good look—but I also have absolutely no memory of writing this, so maybe it doesn’t count.
It’s amazing how the most natural way to describe intense elation is by comparing it to violent disaster. You want to start talking, absurdly, about hurricanes and hailstorms, at what is legitimately a good moment in anyone’s life. If a weatherman told me tomorrow that a tornado of Donovan’s-goal proportions was bearing down on my house, I would think it was an appalling thing to say. But I would also run for cover, because I would know exactly what he meant.
1-0 United States. Final whistle. USA wins Group C. USA wins a World Cup group for the first time since the first World Cup.
Landon Donovan breaks down in tears during his post-match interview. DaMarcus Beasley, the American winger, says something that I think about all the time, because it made no sense whatsoever, yet it was also the perfect thing to say. He says, “We bring something to the table, the American people as a whole.”
I don’t, as a general rule, approve of nationalism, like, at all. And yet.
Put it on my tombstone.
7. The Gift of the Present
Does the goal change soccer in the United States?
I think the answer is yes, in the following way. It gave us all a moment when we could just be in the moment. When we could be united in the moment.
What I mean by that is that American soccer has carried this structural uncertainty about its own status for so long that if you were an American fan, you were always a little bit trapped in big-picture thinking.
You were always aware of the state of the game. The development of the game. Where’s the game going? What’s your responsibility to help get it there?
It was always partly about a process. Probably even this year, heading into Qatar, we still feel some of that.
But not in that moment in Pretoria. When joy finally comes, it gives you the present. It gives you radiance with no future and no past. And it felt to me like a lot of things fell away from American men’s soccer as we all passed through that moment. A weight lifted. I don’t know how to explain it.
Men’s soccer did not get to be bigger than the NFL, but the concern over whether it would just … never seemed as pressing after that. Because of that moment. The game didn’t get bigger so much as it got freer. It got less pressured. It got more fun.
Because of that moment, I think MLS games started to seem more like a great time, less burdened by the question of where the league is going.
Because of that moment, I think Landon Donovan was more able to open up about his struggles with anxiety and burnout—hardly anyone talks about this now, but Landon was way ahead of the discourse on athletes and mental health.
Because of that moment, when a young American player goes to Europe, I no longer think the fate of the universe is riding on the outcome. I just think, for Christ’s sake, Chelsea, get him off the bench.
We did not win the next game. Ghana beat us 2-1 in the quarterfinals. Landon scored the goal. Rough loss. But it didn’t feel anything like it would have felt to lose in the group stage.
As a sports fan, one of the first things you need is to know that it really can happen. The gods can smile on you. That third seven can pop up so all the bells start ringing. And if you are lucky enough to obtain that knowledge, you have the most essential thing. You have something that comes around so rarely that when you do find it, you have to hold onto it as hard as you can.
You have what Landon Donovan gave American fans on June 23, 2010, in South Africa. You have what we’re talking about here every single week.
Because this is a series about joy.