More than just the American hopes of advancing stood on perilous ground as the minutes ticked down to a precious few this morning against Algeria.
Indeed, the momentum of a World Cup itself in the United States, and what that could mean for soccer stateside, was on the line as well.
Soccer is slowly growing- the people who say it will explode overnight, and those who claim there is something inherent within the game that will keep Americans from embracing it, both seem to be well off the mark. Taking a look at the television ratings for USA-England, the match outpaced Game 4 of the NBA Finals and the deciding game of the Stanley Cup Finals as well.
This is not to say that soccer has surpassed basketball (though it has, frankly, a legitimate claim as at least the fourth sport instead of hockey)- but the premier events in the sport do have a healthy audience here in the United States. To truly explode, however, soccer still needs that catalytic event.
Still, a dangerous theory was taking hold as the United States appeared to have lost decisive goals against Solvenia and then Algeria to nothing less than official incompetence. "This is why Americans can't embrace soccer", the refrain on Twitter went. Never mind that simply by replacing the departed referee from Mali with Jim Joyce, and soccer with baseball, the argument would be made that Americans won't embrace the National Pastime.
Still, the audience for win-or-go-home against Algeria, at 9:30 AM on a weekday, will likely pale in comparison to the audience the USA will now get in the Round of 16 on a Saturday. The Donovan goal will live on in soccer lore among those fans who already loved soccer; but it also provided an entry point for the casual fan.
Listening to WFAN this afternoon, it was striking to hear the host, Evan Roberts, doing his best to keep up with burgeoning soccer fever. He acknowledged he didn't know much about the game- alas, most American sports commentators have a tendency to come across like Henderson the Rain King when soccer comes up- but he also fielded a large number of calls about the great drama, and sounded a lot like someone who wanted more of the game.
Realistically, we haven't seen a catalytic event like this in American soccer. And unlike past years, there's an imperative involved particularly for the New York area.
I'm speaking of Red Bull Arena, the finest soccer grounds ever built in the United States ,and one of the better venues, I'm told by those far better-traveled than I am, of anywhere in the world. If Donovan's goal can lead to a soccer boomlet, Red Bull Arenas will spring up, immediately, all over the country for MLS teams. The gradual emergence of soccer is one thing; a sudden turn, and this generation of soccer fans will get the chance to see MLS games in the type of surroundings that will make the non-fan a fan and the casual fan into the feverish fan.
So Donovan's goal did more than give the USA's World Cup bid life. He gave life to the possibility that a country that, after all, has embraced the macarena and disco, can put its collective mania to far better use- in pursuit of the beautiful game. The ramifications may be felt for decades.