On Wednesday morning, American soccer fans glued to their TVs (or in my case, a highly pixelated computer monitor) were sitting on pins and needles. And those pins and needles were sitting on another set of pins and needles.
Why? Because, the U.S. had to beat Algeria in its final game (played in Pretoria) in group play to advance to the second round of the World Cup. History was not on the U.S. side, as the team had lost this game in each of its World Cup appearances since 1950 (0-6).
Sure, the United States had advanced to the second round in 1994 and 2002, but each time the Americans backed in with a loss in its last game thanks to favorable outcomes in other matches.
That was not going to happen Wednesday. England grabbed an early lead against Slovenia. The Americans' path to moving on with a tie was likely gone.
The U.S. was favored against winless and goalless Algeria, but wins have always been hard to come by for the Americans.
The early signs were mixed. Algeria almost took an early lead, but a shot by Raffik Djebbour banged off the crossbar. Then, 21 minutes into the match, Clint Dempsey looked to have scored. But, the assistant referee's flag was up. Offsides was the call, even though replays showed that Dempsey likely wasn't.
The second half saw more scoring chances fail to come to fruition for the U.S.
Ninety minutes had been played. But, in every match, the referee adds time for stoppages because of injuries. The Americans had a brief reprieve.
Algeria stormed down the field, but American keeper Tim Howard made a save on Rafik Saifi. He threw an outlet pass worthy of Bill Walton to a streaking Landon Donovan on the right side.
Donovan passed off to Jozy Altidore. Altidore crossed the ball to Dempsey. Dempsey's shot was blocked by Algerian keeper Rais M'Bolhi, but the rebound trickled out to Donovan. Donovan did not miss. United States 1, Algeria 0.
Donovan's goal was his fourth all time in World Cup play, tying him with Bert Patenaude for the most by an American player. Patenaude scored all of his in 1930 in Uruguay.
The win gave the U.S. the top spot in Group C and an appointment in the second round to play Ghana (which backed in with a 1-0 loss to Germany combined with a 2-1 win by Australia over Serbia) on Saturday in an 11:30 am PT match. The match will be played in Rustenburg. The winner of that match would face the winner of a match between Uruguay and South Korea scheduled for 7 am in Port Elizabeth.
Mexico will play its second round match on Sunday in Johannesburg at 11:30 am against one of the tournament's most impressive teams, Argentina. The winner of that match will face the survivor of what should be another hard fought match between England and Germany in a 7:00 am match on Sunday in Bloemfontein.
The final eight teams will be set Thursday and Friday. Brazil and the Netherlands have already qualified. Defending champion Italy may end up needing a win over Slovakia in its final match or face the ignominy of being eliminated by New Zealand. Another tournament favorite, Spain, will likely need a win over a very lively Chilean side to move on.
The United States and Ghana faced each other in the 2006 World Cup in a match in
Leipzig Nuremberg, Germany. It was the third match in group play. Ghana won 2-1.
After a dreary first set of matches, the World Cup has become more than a series of aimless passes set to the drone of vuvuzelas. The United States will get to stick around for a few more days. Oddsmakers have already made the U.S. a slight favorite over Ghana. Nevertheless, don't expect it to be a smooth ride.