Group Therapy

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A nation exulted when Landon Donovan scored in the 91st minute to push the U.S. past Algeria and to the top of Group C.

For the U.S. Soccer Federation and the boys in Bristol it also was a moment to exhale, and avoid the couch and engaging in the therapy of “what-if” that no doubt would have ensued until at least the kickoff of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

After all, Group C in South Africa was the easiest quartet the U.S. was ever drawn into. Thank you again Charlize Theron and “The Drawmaster,” FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke.

The expectations for advancement were great going in, with a Group C exit viewed as an arrant failure and a major step backward for the world’s game in the States.

And that line of thinking was certainly solidified after Clint Dempsey’s ball bounced through England keeper Robert Green in the June 12 opener. The Yanks (ranked 14th in the FIFA and ESPN Soccer Power Index standings) gained the tie they needed against the Motherland (FIFA’s No. 8, SPI’s No. 5), and victories against lesser lights Slovenia (FIFA’s No. 25, SPI’s No. 23) and Algeria (FIFA’s No. 30, SPI’s No. 66) would ensure Group C passage. Except, nobody handed those sides their scripts.

The U.S. had to scramble from behind against the Slovenes and then Maurice’s Edu’s seeming 85th minute game-winner was waved off –explanation by Sepp Blatter evidently never to come — by a Malian ref. Once again, the 2-2 draw spoke to the resiliency of this U.S. club and its never-say-die attitude.

Still, after that decision and England’s scoreless draw versus Algeria, the U.S. controlled its fate, needing only a win against Algeria to go through. But after numerous chances and a disallowed goal by Dempsey in the first half on a dubious offsides call, the Yanks couldn’t hit the mark despite other attempts — Donovan, Altidore both trying to put a home rebound and Dempsey hitting the post with a wide-open shot earlier in the second half were the most exasperating.

Frustration was setting in even among the U.S. faithful, with a four-year bout of depression surely to follow about chances lost, opportunities missed and calls flubbed.

Then, goalie Tim Howard caught an Algerian header in stoppage time and made like Wes Unseld, zipping an outlet pass out to Donovan. The midfielder dribbled for another 30 to 40 yards before flanking one to Jozy Altidore on the right. The striker crossed one to an on-rushing Dempsey just as the Algerian keeper punched away the deflected shot, which landed at Landon’s feet.

Back of the net glory! ESPN registers Nielsens galore!

With this batch of late-match heroics — hey, Sam’s Army has scored nine goals in WC qualifying and South Africa after the 85th minute — Donovan’s legend as the U.S.’s top futboler ever was steeled forever! Tinseltown couldn’t have written it any better.

Now, the stakes — this time unexpectedly — have been raised again, as will the ratings for ABC on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (ET). A rematch against Group D runner-up Ghana, which beat the U.S. 2-1 in the final group match from the 2006 World Cup, in on tap and the U.S. is supposed to win this one. The Black Stars are ranked 32nd by FIFA, 33rd by SPI. The almost 13 million-viewer tally for the U.S.-England on June 12 is poised to fall. (ESPN benefits too with its June 28 coverage of those always best of friends, England and Germany, colliding at 10 a.m.)

From there, the U.S. would face the Uruguay (FIFA’s No. 16, SPI’s No. 7) -South Korea (FIFA’s No. 47, SPI’s No. 18) survivor in the quarters. If the U.S. plays to the international governing body’s ranking, it would be in the semifinals, surpassing its 2002 WC performance, when it bowed to the Germans in the quarters.

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