At precisely 2 p.m. Saturday, amid the monotonic din of the cheap plastic horns we’ve come to know as vuvuzelas, the referee from Hungary halted the United States’ latest comeback attempt in the World Cup with an even more grating sound: A whistle.
After a pair of draws preceded a thrilling added-time victory that sent the Yanks into the knockout round, and after a 1-1 deadlock in regulation begat a 30-minute overtime on Saturday, the USA’s quest for an elite-level upgrade of its international soccer reputation finally was derailed because Bob Bradley’s team ran out of time against Ghana.
That’s one way of looking at it. Another way? Eight seconds bought the U.S. soccer team three extra days on the world stage.
Between the outlet pass American goalkeeper Tim Howard threw to Landon Donovan last Wednesday and Donovan’s score on a rebound of Clint Dempsey’s missed shot, eight seconds transpired. Remove those eight seconds against Algeria from the equation, and the U.S. performance in the tournament is seen as a disappointment underscored by controversy.
Three-and-out, with three draws. Ho-hum. And while the U.S. players could’ve recited the ancient lament associated with also-rans – “We was robbed!” – the page on referee Koman Coulibaly’s mysterious no-goal call against Slovenia would’ve been turned before the knockout round.
Instead, thanks to an eight-second sequence Wednesday, the Yanks got three more days to dream big in South Africa, while soccer fans in the U.S. got three more days to tout the unique allure of the sport on the home front.
During each of the four U.S. games in the World Cup, enthusiasts crammed soccer-centric bars from sea to shining sea. But those fans who awakened at dawn to score a bar stool seat at such pubs as Doyle’s in Tacoma already were on board. Nobody needed to preach to them – they were the choir.
But what about the casual observers who waited until the World Cup to climb aboard the bandwagon?
“I think soccer could surpass the NFL and Major League Baseball,” Mitch Nelson said early Saturday afternoon at the North End Tavern, a neighborhood bar in the Proctor District. “You’ve got a bunch of players in this game representing their country, and they’re doing it without demanding $250 million contracts. Ever since I started watching the World Cup, I haven’t heard one word about money.
“The other sports in America better take notice. Soccer is exciting.”
Nelson, 59, belongs to a generation of sports fans who grew up considering soccer to be as foreign as red-paper currency and movies with subtitles. An afterthought? It wasn’t even a thought.
“We played football, baseball and basketball as kids,” said Nelson, a 1969 graduate of Mount Tahoma. “Our high school didn’t have a soccer team. No high school had a soccer team, and why would they? Nobody paid attention to it.”
As Nelson chatted, the U.S.-Ghana game could be seen on three of the five television sets above the bar.
“One of the guys down there likes NASCAR,” Nelson said, gesturing to his left. “And I like golf. I’m hoping Ryan Moore does well this weekend.”
Then Donovan tied the score on a penalty kick, and Nelson reached for the remote to switch the channel.
There always would be golf, plenty of golf, all the golf a golf fan could ever want. But this World Cup stuff was getting urgent.
“I’ve been learning the game,” he said, “from Roy.”
That would be Roy Green, sitting a few chairs away. An American transplant from England, Green is the North End Tavern’s resident authority on the rules, records, tradition and etiquette of The Beautiful (albeit sometimes confusing) Game.
Green follows the mainstream sports of his adopted country. He has informed opinions about the Seahawks, Huskies and, of course, the Mariners. But soccer is in his blood.
“If you can’t get excited about a game like USA-Algeria,” he said, “you might as well be dead.”
On Saturday, the U.S. team attempted to emulate its surrender-a-cheap-goal-before-getting-serious pattern in international competition.
“The U.S. team,” play-by-play broadcaster Ian Darke said 18 minutes into the first half, “is looking like rabbits caught in floodlights.”
(A rabbit caught in floodlights? Hmm. Is that anything like a deer caught in headlights?)
But there’s only so many times a soccer team – any team, for that matter – can dig itself into an early hole and expect to succeed. There’s only so many times, uh, rabbits can escape them floodlights.
The collective groan heard when time finally expired Saturday did not include the voice of Rohn Amegatcher, 40, a construction manager who relocated to Tacoma from Ghana at age 12.
“It’s important to me that a little team like Ghana,” Amegatcher said in Doyle’s, “can hold the Americans just with sheer heart.”
So Ghana advances, while the U.S. team is a goner. But the unofficial winner of the tournament might be soccer.
After 80 years of World Cup competition, the sport needed only eight seconds to establish a permanent foothold in the United States.
As the man was saying in the North End Tavern: If you can’t get excited about a game like that, you might as well be dead.