Nicely done, USA, but good enough won't be in days, years to come

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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Landon Donovan has a parade coming to him. He won't get it, of course, because that is reserved for quarterbacks, and besides, any parade would only last a few blocks in keeping with the way the Americans tackled the group stage at the World Cup and the enormousness of the task now ahead of them.

Throw Landon Donovan a parade, but make it a small one and keep aiming for bigger things. (AP)  
Throw Landon Donovan a parade, but make it a small one and keep aiming for bigger things. (AP)  
But when he converted his extra-time tap-in to push the Americans past Algeria and to the top of Group C on Wednesday, he bought a lot of people a few extra days of competition and saved them four years of rich and well-deserved recriminations.

After all, remember all the pre-tournament analysis that proclaimed that this was supposed to be the easiest group the Americans have ever been placed in, and how they needed Donovan's 91st-minute goal to win their only game in that group. Had not Donovan finished Jozy Altidore's charge, and had not goalkeeper Tim Howard sprung them all forward, they surely would have failed, and miserably so.

You may now have five seconds to scream "Koman Coulibaly" as loud as you want, and then you have to drop it forever.

Indeed, both the Americans and English scraped by to advance (Jermaine Defoe beat Slovenia in the other match), so while the emotional lift of Donovan's goal may give everyone a great adrenalin high (and a parade of relief sometime down the line), cutting it so close is only a temporary high. No more bluffing with the seven-deuce.

Of course, that's the view for those of you want to see the American soccer team as a glass half-filled. If you see in this team a deep run through the field, tempting fate so brazenly is a bad way to go about one's business. And a case can be made that had the Algerians not decided so late in the match to become Chile and go forward for three points that would have done them no good, the Yanks would have lost to fate.

But that's for alternative universe freaks. This win was to save them years of grief. Everything after this is gravy, starting with a teaspoon and, in time with more work, more luck and more efficiency, ending with a bucket.

And they succeeded while knowing they cannot succeed this way any longer. To strain the poker analogy, they need to be less we'll-hit-the-ace-on-the-river and more we-have-pocket-aces-before-the-flop.

Can they do this? That depends more than anyone else on Howard, then on Altidore and Clint Dempsey (who keeps looking like Robert Downey Jr. after a tough night), and ultimately on Donovan, who still somehow manages to be the baby-faced assassin despite having played on the U.S. team since it reached the semifinals in 1930.

But the three matches just completed showed the Americans' most traditional strength (persistence) and their most nagging failure (vulnerability at the back). Algeria's decision to seal up the back until the final fateful minutes obscured that weakness, but it was displayed in the first half of the England and Slovenia matches, and weaknesses get exposed faster in the knockout stage than in group therapy.

That's the looking-ahead part. For the moment, though, the Americans met their burden, if a little too cardio-unfriendly. This was the charming part of the American way of doing soccer business, and at midnight, the work begins anew. Only harder, and less forgiving.

And that parade for Donovan? If you can get the permit, I'm sure someone somewhere will sign on.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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