By Adam Vaccaro
What happened Wednesday: Can you imagine if they tied? Just think for a second about the setback soccer would have taken in this country had the scoreless draw between the US and Algeria entering the 91st minute held. For the second time in four days, a blatantly wrong call would have cost the United States an important victory. I don't need to remind anyone at this point of Koman Coulibaly's disallowing a Maurice Edu score late against Slovenia. It happened again Wednesday morning when Clint Dempsey's 21st minute strike was disallowed on a faulty offsides call. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't. And with England putting the finishing touches on a 1-0 win against Slovenia, it was win or go home for the Yanks.
But fair or not, the score stood at 0-0 entering stoppage time, and it looked like America's tournament was on the verge of ending. All those speculative soccer fans that swing by every four years would have had every reason to turn away. And who would we aficionados have been to stop them? I can argue against the boring claim, or the problem with low scores, or the too-many-players-to-keep-track-of issue. But you can't get into it because you watched poor officiating unjustly cost your team the reward it surely deserves, not just once but twice? Eh, I can't really fight you on that.
Enter Landon Donovan. Algeria pushed its attack to open up extra time but Tim Howard collected a save and started the counterattack with his quick outlet to Donovan. Donovan pushed the ball forward to Jozy Altidore and followed the play. A Dempsey bid was stopped by Algerian keeper Rais M'Bolhi, but Donovan collected the rebound and sent home the goal that had eluded the Yanks the entire match.
The win moves the United States forward and they advance to the Round of 16 in thrilling and resilient fashion. Americans' relationship with the world's most popular game is still up in the air, but no doubt it loves thrills and it loves resilience. Get ready to talk soccer: World Cup fever is about to quickly spread from coast to coast.
Also Wednesday: A win against Slovenia guaranteed the English a spot in the second round and would have the added value of keeping the tempers of the its supporters at bay. For the first time this tournament, the Three Lions came through. Jermain Defoe put away a first half goal and David James posted his second straight clean sheet as England moved forward to the knockout round. Slovenia would have advanced had the US and Algeria drawn; Donovan's game-winner probably broke more Slovenian than Algerian hearts despite the nation's tiny population.
Germany beat Ghana 1-0, a good enough result to advance both. Germany wins the group as was expected. Ghana, due to the result of Australia and Serbia's match, moves ahead on goal differential. This is business as usual for the Germans but is cause for huge celebration in Ghana and across Africa. The Black Stars will likely be the host continent's only second round representation.
Australia needed a strong enough win to erase its goal differential in order to advance while Serbia just needed a victory. The Aussies scored twice in three minutes halfway through the second half, including an acrobatic header from captain Tim Cahill, but it wasn't enough. The 2-1 win for Australia meant failure for both sides, sending the two teams home.
What it all means: The teams everybody expected to advance from Group C did so. The order in which they finished, however, is a surprise. America tops the group and as such avoid Germany, much to the Yanks' benefit. The Three Lions will be tasked with Die Mannschaft on Sunday while the United States draw the easier assignment and will see Ghana who eliminated the Yanks in the 2006 group play finales on Saturday. Ghana should benefit quite a bit from a home-continent advantage, but the quarterfinals do look very possible for the Stars and Stripes.
Algeria and Slovenia should both be proud of their teams' accomplishments, though the last-second nature of Slovenia's dispelling surely hurts. Still, for two teams that were considered doormats, it was a fine showing that caused the favorites more trouble than expected. Slovenia's draw with America (mired in controversy though it may have been) and the Desert Foxes' scoreless tilt with England will be high points in the country's soccer histories.
Australia did well to bounce back after being drubbed 4-0 by Germany in its opener. This was, however, probably the last opportunity for much of the aged Socceroo roster. There will be heavy turnover before 2014, but the core that brought the 2006 team to the Round of 16 has done great things for soccer down under. It's a disappointing tournament for Serbia, but their 1-0 upset over Germany will long provide fond memories.
What to watch on Thursday: Japan and Denmark have each beat Cameroon and lost to the Netherlands. This has resulted in what is basically a play-in match with a winner going to the second round. Japan does have goal differential in its favor and would advance with a draw while only a win will do for the Danes. If the Samurai were to join South Korea in advancing to the second round for the first time outside of Asia, it would represent a tremendous achievement for Far Eastern soccer.
Also Thursday: The second Group E finale is little more than a formality. The Netherlands have secured entry to the Round of 16 and barring a big swing in goal differential will top the group. Cameroon has been eliminated and will be playing for pride in its finale. Look for the Dutch to rest some usual starters in preparing for the second round.
Group F has produced some of the tournament's most interesting results and will be settled on Thursday. Italy, the 2006 champion, has disappointed by drawing both Paraguay and New Zealand, but a win against last place Slovakia would send it forth. The Kiwis have become the world's sweethearts and are also in win-and-in position against Paraguay, who only need a point to secure advancement. Such a result is unlikely for the All Whites, but so too was the draw against Azzurri. Should both matches result in a draw, whoever finishes with more goals scored between Italy and New Zealand will advance. Right now, that number is tied, and if it were to remain as such then the fate of the two teams would come down to a tense drawing of lots.
Question of the Day: Will Japan play for the win or the draw? Either result will send them forward, and both have their risks. Against the Netherlands, defense was the clear objective. The Blue Samurai back line was strong in its 1-0 loss to the Dutch, but should they emphasize defense against the Danes and again slip once without collecting a goal of their own, they'll go home. On the other hand, Denmark's counterattack showed itself strong against Cameroon. An attacking mindset from Japan could leave it very vulnerable. The Samurai's tactics on Thursday are worth keeping an eye on.
Full schedule (all times EDT): Slovakia v Italy Ellis Park Stadium, Johannesburg 10:00 a.m.; Paraguay v New Zealand Peter Mokaba Stadium, Polokwane 10:00 a.m.; Denmark v Japan Royal Bafokeng Stadium, Rustenburg 2:30 p.m.; Cameroon v Netherlands Green Point Stadium, Cape Town 2:30 p.m.
Quote of Note: I'd be surprised if we didn't make a few more fans tonight. My guess is Saturday is going to be a pretty cool occasion for our country. - Landon Donovan on the impact at home from the United States' victory against Algeria.