Target Man: The Heart Of The Matter For the USA

Heart. It's what's been missing, and it was what was on the pitch when the U.S. beat Egypt, says's Greg Lalas.
By Greg Lalas

RUSTENBURG, South Africa – Just seconds after Charlie Davies scrounged up the first goal in what would turn out to be a remarkable 3-0 victory for the United States over Egypt, I received three text messages from various parts of the world. Each of them included the word “heart.”

Up until that point, the U.S. had gone the better of two full games here in South Africa—and three of four, if you go back to the World Cup qualifier in Costa Rica—without showing the required character to earn results. Against Italy in the opener, there were good spells and decent chances, but the U.S. never genuinely looked capable of escaping Pretoria’s Loftus Stadium with a result. The Brazil game was an egregiously morose performance, marked by poor decision-making, horrendous execution, and a wide-eyed timidity; the players’ insistence that it got better in the second half ignored the fact that the Brazilians had switched on the cruise control.

But in the 21st minute against Egypt, something shined through, an attitude, an audacious idea that even when you’ve got nothing left to lose, you still go for it. And the U.S. kept it up for the rest of the 90 minutes.

Meanwhile, in Bloemfontein, the mighty world champions, Italy—with the supposed whopper that got away, Italian-American Giuseppe Rossi, on the field—were doing no better against Brazil than the U.S. did. They were down 3-0 at halftime, meaning the U.S. was in if they could score a couple more goals in the second half.

Michael Bradley got the first one. Clint Dempsey got the second.

At which point my colleague Sulmaan Ahmad, who watched the game on TV in London, summed things up: “It's the very essence of never giving up. The game, on the face of it, was a dead rubber, but the U.S. went out there to kick some $#% knowing it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. But they did their bit.”

They sure did.

Here was Davies battling against two defenders and Egypt’s brilliant, talismanic goalkeeper Essam El Hadary to somehow force the ball in and light a spark of hope under everyone.

Here was Clint Dempsey shrugging off his defender—and his critics—before burying a picture-perfect header to put the U.S. up 3-0 and send them through to the semifinals.

Here was Jay Demerit, who had already made a good account of himself in the first two games, winning every head ball and bravely flying in for a well-timed tackle on Ahmed Abdelghani. He got the ball, he got the man, he made his case for more playing time.

Does this performance, and the team’s advancement to the semis, erase the memory of the earlier games, plus the Costa Rica game earlier this month? No. Does it negate the criticism that Bradley and his players have suffered this week? No.

But it does do one thing. It proves that when they play with heart, they have the talent to get results against very good teams.

And what better way to prove that beyond a doubt than in Wednesday’s semifinal matchup against Spain. The Spaniards are European champions and riding a record-breaking 15-game winning streak. You gotta have heart to win this one.

Greg Lalas is editor of Magazine.

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