[USA-ALGERIA ANALYSIS] Misfortune, fatigue and pressure grew as the minutes dwindled, but on the field at the Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria the legs kept moving, the heads stayed upright, and the faces stayed focused. As an icy dread took hold of American fans in attendance and those watching back home and around the world, it did not seep into the men, appropriately, attired in white. For in their own way, on this day, all would be heroes.
The only way to truly comprehend the 1-0 U.S. win over Algeria is to go beyond analysis into psychoanalysis, and despite skimpy, if any, qualifications in this regard it’s appropriate to suggest that willpower rates rather highly on Coach Bob Bradley’s checklist. During his tenure he’s rejected dozens of players; some were sent away for reasons other than talent.
A year and a half ago, he said, “At times we have to tell a guy after a few days of training that we don't think he’s sharp or fully into it. The work that goes on in the inside with trying to build a good national team is always ongoing.
“We say to a lot of guys that when you come in the door, nothing that’s been said or written about you matters. Now, it’s what happens on the inside, how you work with the group, how you prepare for games, how you train, how you compete. Ultimately, that’s going to determine how good we can be.”
Courage and confidence count for a lot, too, starting with the coach himself, who dropped central defender Oguchi Onyewu in an absolutely necessary move. Captain Carlos Bocanegra moved from left back to the middle, where he prefers to play and his leadership is more easily disseminated to the group. The quick if sometimes erratic Jonathan Bornstein took over at left back.
Maurice Edu started alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield with their roles clearly defined; Edu at home, Bradley covering lanes while prompting and supporting the attack. Up front, Jozy Altidore played with Herculez Gomez, a speedier forward chosen rather than a purer striker, Edson Buddle.
Two of the moves nearly backfired in the first half. Gomez hit two great close-range chances right to keeper Rais Bolhi at a height he could easily handle, whereas a better finisher like Buddle – or wide mids Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey -- might have shot low or hit into the roof of the net.
Miscues by Jay DeMerit, alongside Bocanegra instead of Onyewu, twice put his goal in peril. In the sixth minute, DeMerit flubbed a long ball at the edge of the box, and it bounced for Rafik Djebbour to smash first-time off the crossbar. Then DeMerit ranged outside and got caught in a tangle as Steve Cherundolo was about to clear a ball. Yet the U.S. luck held when Djebbour rushed his shot and misfired.
The coach's moves paid dividends in the attack, but Gomez squandered his opportunities, the second of which yielded a rebound he squared to Dempsey, who struck it in. Apparently level with the last defender, Dempsey was adjudged offside. Whatever disappointment the Americans felt at a goal rubbed off for the second consecutive game didn’t drain their resolve.
Bradley cut through the middle in the 36th minute and played a ball for Donovan, who touched it forward. As he went to shoot, Altidore got on the ball first and blasted over from just outside the goal area. Anxiety did show on such occasions, as when DeMerit’s over-anxiousness shadowed an otherwise commendable effort.
The Algerian three-man back line is designed to be shielded by center mids Hassan Yebda and Mehdi Lacen. Instead, they frantically tracked Bradley pushing through the middle as Dempsey and Donovan raided from the wings, and Altidore floated out wide and occasionally checked back, so the U.S. had little trouble getting at outside defenders Anther Yahir and Madjid Bougherra. Getting the ball past Bohli and into the goal, however, proved more problematic, as did containing Yebda when he came from deep positions into the offense.
As expected, Algeria sent Nadir Belhadj up the left wing early and often, yet also pushed on the opposite flank to feed balls behind Bornstein to an attacking trident headed by Djebbour with Karim Matmour and Karim Ziani in close support. The attack quieted for a while after the U.S. errors, but late in the half Ziani drilled a shot that just missed, and Djebbour just failed to get his head to a Yebda cross on another serve the U.S. didn’t contest.
Benny Feilhaber replaced Gomez at halftime and took over for Dempsey, who moved up top, only to drop back into midfield 20 minutes later when Edson Buddle came in for Edu. That moved Fielhaber into the middle as the stakes escalated in this high-speed poker game between Bradley and Algerian coach Rabah Saadane.
Feilhaber, another American who joined a furious battle with nary a sign of nerves, added some cleverness and guile to the offensive thrusts yet tracked well back, in one case blocking a cross that rolled over his own goal line. He also put enough pressure on Yebda to yield a shot over the bar.
Algeria couldn’t contain Altidore’s work on the wings, yet still the misses mounted.
A ball to Dempsey produced a curling shot off the post and a rebound attempt banged wide. A low driven ball caromed off Bougherra and narrowly off-frame. When Altidore changed tack and barreled through the middle, Lacen’s crunching piece of cynicism drew a caution. Donovan served as catalyst and occasional decoy, playing early balls to good spots rather than draw fouls in midfield.
Amid all this, Cherundolo came up the right to chip a left-footed cross that Buddle, shoulder-to-shoulder with a defender and Altidore, powered in a header acrobatically repelled by Bohli. After the keeper punched out a searing Bradley free kick, Bradley Sr. made his last change: DaMarcus Beasley in, Bornstein out, more speed to ramp up a NASCAR pace.
Substitute Refik Saifi could have won the game in stoppage time, but keeper Tim Howard easily caught his header and zipped a great ball out for Donovan to dribble through the right channel. Again, Altidore roamed up the flank to take Donovan’s pass and center a ball for Dempsey racing through the middle. Bohli blocked the point-blank shot and scrambled to retrieve the loose ball, but it rolled a yard too far.
Donovan’s seemingly limitless reservoir of endurance and determination got the ball into the net and him to the corner flag for a celebratory belly-slide, soon to be covered by a dog-pile to die for.