by Sebastian Lena
It was Wednesday, June 23, 2010, and I was working the morning shift at The Boston Globe. Normally, the tv's in the sports department remain off or are muted, as to provide employees with a professional working environment. I guess nobody sent that memo to senior columnist Bob Ryan.
Upon entering the newsroom, Ryan made his presence known by turning on every single TV in the surrounding area without hesitation; volume cranked up. But on this day, you heard no complaints. This was the sports section. Do you think anybody in that office was concerned about anything other than the World Cup match between the United States and Algeria?
So the usual sounds of fingers tapping on keyboards, mouses clicking and phones ringing were quickly replaced by “ohhs,” “ahhs” and sighs of disbelief as the U.S. squandered one opportunity after another. Shots ricocheted off the crossbar, were deflected by Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bohli Ouhab and sailed over wide-open nets. Throw in a disallowed goal due to a questionable offsides call and it just didn’t seem like victory was meant to be for the Americans.
Anticipation grew as the 90th minute passed with the U.S. still deadlocked in a scoreless tie. Only stoppage time minutes stood between the Americans and another early exit at the World Cup. What looked to be the build-up of a magical run was quickly beginning to crumble as yet another gut-wrenching tease in the history of U.S. soccer.
But as we’ve learned throughout the course of history, it’s never wise to count out the American fighting spirit.
After a timely save, goalkeeper Tim Howard quickly hurled the ball downfield and found a streaking Landon Donovan in open space. The play caught the Algerians napping, and the Americans were rewarded with a 4-on-2 advantage. Donovan wasted no time, dumping off the ball to Jozy Altidore, who then flicked a perfectly placed ball into the box.
On the receiving end was Clint Dempsey, who connected on a shot that was initially stopped by Ouhab. However, the Algerian keeper couldn’t keep control of the ball, as it rolled back towards the center of the 18-yard box. That’s when an opportune Donovan sent the ball over the outstretched hands of Ouhab and into the back of the net, all but securing the Americans’ spot in the knock-out round.
The entire newsroom broke out in sheer pandemonium. High fives, fist bumps and congratulatory remarks were exchanged. I found myself embracing co-workers I had never seen or spoken to before. The only thing missing was a “U-S-A!” chant.
Similar scenes of jubilation took place in bars, restaurants and households all across the nation. To sum it up, when Donovan raced towards the sideline after his goal, teammates in pursuit, an entire nation celebrated as one.
“Oh, it’s incredible!” exclaimed play-by-play announcer Ian Dark moments after the goal. “You could not write a script like this.”
In actuality, with all the twists and turns, the Americans’ run to the second round had the markings of Hollywood written all over it.
In a win-or-go-home-situation, Donovan’s late-game heroics not only helped the U.S. snatch victory away from the jaws of defeat, it also helped them win their group for the first time since 1930. And even though the U.S. would eventually fall to Ghana in the next round, 2-1 in extra time, they could walk away with their heads held high, knowing they accomplished a lot more than what anyone expected.
For starters, much like the silver medal run the U.S. men's hockey squad made at the Winter Olympics earlier in the year, this team's run into the second round of the World Cup instilled a strong sense of national pride across the nation. That week, if you walked into a bar, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a random “U-S-A!” chant to break out; regardless if the U.S. were playing or not. Even more noticeable was the fact that everywhere you went, people were donning U.S. apparel or miniature American flags.
Donovan wasn’t the only one who scored in the dramatic victory over Algeria; department stores carrying World Cup merchandise scored as well. Big time.
For the week ending June 27, sales of World Cup merchandise totaled $7 million—three times the amount sold the previous week. In particular, the demand for U.S. jerseys was so high after the victory that department stores were turning down hundreds of customers daily. Compare that to the 2006 World Cup, when it took those same stores years to sell the 40 or 50 jerseys left over. Then again, after their embarrassing showing in the Cup that year, I don’t even think the 2006 squad would purchase any themselves.
Television ratings further showcased proof of increased interest in the World Cup. The U.S.-Algeria match became ESPN’s highest-rated and most-watched soccer game ever. The match delivered a 4.6 rating (4.0 household U.S. rating), with 4,582,000 households and 6,161,000 viewers for the contest. In addition, an estimated 1.1 million U.S. viewers watched the game on ESPN3.com, making it the largest U.S. audience for any sports event on the internet.
Keep in mind this is all for a telecast that began at 10 am ET. As expected, the ratings almost doubled when the U.S. faced off with Ghana in the following round. The ABC telecast drew an impressive 8.5 rating, making it the fourth-highest World Cup match in the history of U.S. television.
Even after the Americans’ departure from the event, TV ratings continued to surge. According to an analysis by The Neilson Company, an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched at least six minutes of the 2010 World Cup; that’s an increase of 22 percent from the 91.4 million the 2006 World Cup drew.
And who said Americans didn’t appreciate the sport?
With the passing of the World Cup, the notion that Americans had long discounted soccer as a major sport was finally put to rest. Suddenly, soccer became cool again. Just days before the U.S.-Algeria match, the Los Angeles Lakers had outlasted the Boston Celtics in an epic seven-game NBA Finals series. Yet, all people wanted to know was, “Did you see that goal by Landon Donovan? Wow!”
While the Americans’ run enthralled an entire nation, it also renewed its sense of pride in itself. That’s because for once, America found itself cast in an unfamiliar role—the underdog.
The rest of the world predicted the arrogant Americans would wilt up and fade away from the spotlight before the first week was up. However, unlike teams of years past, the 2010 U.S. squad was set on defying these expectations.
When the U.S. was faced with an opening group stage matchup against soccer powerhouse England, many expected a British rout; what they got was a gutsy performance by the U.S. and a 1-1 draw.
When the U.S. was staring at a 2-0 halftime deficit against Slovenia in their following match, many expected the Americans to cave in; what they got was a thrilling rally from the U.S. and a 2-2 draw.
When the U.S. was faced with two disallowed goals on questionable calls against Slovenia and Algeria, many expected those calls would be the final nail in the coffin of the Americans’ hopes; what they got was the U.S. winning their group.
Time and time again, the U.S. persevered. Their grit, determination and never-say-die attitude exemplified the American spirit in its truest form. We asked for a soccer team. What we got was a team of young men we could relate to. A team we could truly believe in.
With his goal, Landon Donovan secured a spot in American sports lore. It was one of those moments that you'd be hard-pressed not to remember where you were, what you were doing and who you were with at the exact time it happened. Where, when and how it happened all contributed in making it one of those moments you just can't forget.
Then again, who knows what the 2014 squad has in store for us.