Thursday, October 15, 2009

An Emotional Release

Sometimes a rare or unusual confluence of things make what should be an ordinary event become something greater. Well, last night at RFK Stadium was surely one such event. From events happening before the game to the progression of events during the game, it all lead to a rather gratifying and joyous last-second 2-2 draw.

The USA already qualified for the World Cup, so technically this game was meaningless. The players wanted to win to finish first in the hexagonal and possibly get a seed for the World Cup draw. But let's face it, that seed is not happening, just forget it, so the match was meaningless from the standpoint of being absolutely necessary.

Yet Tuesday morning's accident that left Charlie Davies seriously injured and another person dead altered everything.

The US has never really gotten a hold of what type of team it is in terms of formation and attacking style, and you can tell it has somewhat bothered the team in the past, and certainly bothered fans for a long time. Sometimes it's two deep defensive midfielders, maybe one defensive midfielder and an attacking mid, sometimes attacking through the wings, sometimes trying to force it through the middle, you never really know. But with a shortage of World Class talent to build around an attacking style that can dictate a set style or pace no matter the opponent, the US team has formed one hard and true identity- the classic never-say-die attitude, always fighting and lots of heart. They showed resilience in the Confederations Cup, and time and again during World Cup qualifying when fighting back from deficits, such as the improbable comeback against a Honduran side previously unbeaten at home.

Well, fighting on behalf of a fallen comrade was certainly another motivator to just fight for everything until the last whistle, to do whatever it takes to get a result and honor their friend and teammate.

Costa Rica, on the other hand, was still playing for it's World Cup life. And they brought their game in the first half. They withstood early US pressure, including a laughable, inexplicable misfire by Saturday's USA hero Connor Casey (at 9 minutes nonetheless, when we were honoring ChuckDeez! RFK might have literally combusted had Casey scored). Then came Bryan Ruiz tooling Oguchi, who looked increasingly off key since his summer move to the AC Milan bench. Then came Michael Bradley failing to track Ruiz before he unleashed an unstoppable shot that must have sent an entire country into delirium.

But a not-so-predictable thing happened. Costa Rica backed off, trying to defend the lead with 10 men, the US took complete control, and despite blowing way too many chances, showed heart to rescue a point, an undefeated home campaign, and first place bragging rights in CONCACAF.

Of course, it never should have come down to the last second. Connor Casey blew that early chance, showed a lack of killer striker instinct by deferring to Landon Donovan on a clear chance later, and then pretty much didn't do anything aside from two or three decent flicks/lay-offs. The man is something of a hero after his Honduras performance, yet he gets no slack from USA fans, and his performance didn't help.

His strike partner was also wasteful, though no one can doubt Jozy Altidore's otherwise immense performance. He was all over the place, winning tackles, setting up teammates, and probably should have scored twice (though his first half chance saved by Navas was good agressive goalkeeping). He clearly wanted to play well for his good friend and his comments after the game about always leaving everything on the field because you never know when it's your last are heartening for US fans and scary for opposing defenses.

Landon Donovan may be even more guilty of profligacy than Casey, and he may have even been a little tired for once. He usually can be counted to attack defenders and push the ball forward when a game gets stretched end to end late in the second half, but he tended to hold back somewhat, though that did help retain possession.

The keys were the introduction of Jose Francisco Torres and Robbie Rogers. Benny Feilhaber was ineffective because he was coming far too deep to receive the ball from his defenders, while Bradley was playing above him. Something seems backwards about that scenario. Torres on the other hand played the part perfectly, and his distribution was great, throwing in a key tackle as well. Rogers also came in and missed some chances, though they are more excusable since you wouldn't expect him to finish with his right foot or head anyway. Still, both Torres and Rogers may merit more playing time after last night.

Still, after all these performances, the US was down late, and the air in the stadium was entirely sucked out after Oguchi went down with a serious injury. By the way, I'm going to send a big F You to AC Milan chief executive Adriano Galliani, who wants compensation from the USSF for Gooch's injury.

Additionally, the Costa Ricans were continuing with absolutely ridiculous time wasting. It began in the first half! At one point an "injured" player was getting up and the Costa Rican medical staffer dumped the entire contents of his cooler on the field. Seriously?! For this egregious poor sportsmanship, the karma gods struck them with what I can only imagine is a horrible, gut-punching twist of fate.

While part of me is upset that we couldn't sell out the final home qualifier and only 26,000 people were in attendance (though that was 75-80% USA fans, filling the entire lower bowl with US fans), at the game the crowd was simply amazing, a great atmosphere around the entire stadium, not just the usual loud side of RFK. And you can't discount the effect and atmosphere of those classic RFK stands bouncing up and down like its glory days. As the game was dying and it seemed like we couldn't get the point, and the disappointment of DC United's season at RFK was bleeding over to the USMNT, well the fans decided the heck with it and jumped and cheered for one last attack, trying to will a goal. And when Jonathan Bornstein came unmarked and buried his header, well we might have celebrated harder than when the US clinched qualification on Saturday. It was an affirmation of the US's heart, getting a point for Davies, bragging rights over Mexico in the CONCACAF standings, and sticking it to the Costa Ricans for their antics all at once (while also benefiting the Hondurans, who I must say the US felt good helping after their country was so respectful of the USA on Saturday, a rarity in Central America). All those emotions were released at once, a necessary outpouring from both the team and its fans.

There's probably more to add (what does Gooch's injury mean for the team, Bornstein's continued good play, the marked improvement of Central American goalkeepers recently - Navas was very good last night, the ongoing central midfield question, who steps in up top next to Altidore, etc.), and I'm sure we'll go over that at some point. But to finish things off, here's the video of the final seconds, with the US crowd, the corner kick and goal, US celebrations, and Costa Rican heartbreak:

(For a sound clip of how important this was to Honduras, listen to the Honduran radio call from El Salvador when the US scores)

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