We all have our personal collections of “I remember where I was when…” sports moments, the results of that peculiar alchemy of memory and emotion and the sights and sounds of a familiar or unfamiliar place.
I remember where I was … when Pete Sampras barfed on the baseline and then survived Alex Corretja at the US Open (my grandmother’s bedroom), when David Wells threw a perfect game (warming up for a Little League game next to a transistor radio), when Larry Johnson’s four-point play sent the Garden into orbit (my parents’ living room), when Todd Pratt hit a home run to win the NLDS (just emerging at the top of the ramp to my section at Shea Stadium), when Albert Pujols hit a ball off Brad Lidge that’s still traveling to this day (sitting on a disgusting dorm-room futon), when Endy Chavez made the catch and Carlos Beltran struck out looking (Shea Stadium again, many rows behind first base), when LeBron chased down Iguodala and Kyrie drained the 3 (in a car on I-95). To name a few.
Add to that collection: where I was when Landon Donovan scored for the United States against Algeria in its final group-stage game of the World Cup (on that same futon, maybe, in an apartment in a flimsy building on 13th Street that noticeably shook every time a truck drove by). The year was 2010; it was daytime in New York, as the match happened many time zones away in South Africa. The USA was at that precise moment in third place in its group and needed a win to advance to the knockout rounds (England was atop the group — sound familiar?). It was 0-0 into stoppage time. Then Tim Howard sprang a break. Donovan sprinted onto a loose rebound and slotted it in the back of the net. The neighbors yelled. Car horns blared on the street below. A memory was stamped.
This afternoon’s World Cup clash between the USA and Iran (2 p.m., Fox) is set up to be just as memorable — if not more. After opening the tournament with draws against Wales (disappointing) and England (exhilarating), the US needs a win to reach the Round of 16.
“Our goal is to win the World Cup,” center back Walker Zimmerman said. “And in order to do that, we have to get to the knockout stages. For us, our knockout game comes one game earlier. … We have no problem with that, starting our knockout a little bit earlier.”
The stakes are playoff Game 7 to the nth power; there is no next season (not until the 2026 World Cup), and there hasn’t been a last season since 2014. This is arguably — and it’s not too difficult an argument to make — the most talented and accomplished roster the US men’s team has ever had. And as much as the players and coaches might want or try to “we’re laser-focused on this match” their way out of it, this global sports convention has surfaced the contrasts — then amplified by social media posts and state media affiliates — between American values and the repressive edicts of Iran’s theocratic regime.
“I think the emotional side of having to win to get into the next round is enough to be up for it,” center back Tim Ream said. “I don’t think we have to worry about anything else in terms of what the game means. What is on the line is advancing into the knockout stages, and if that’s not enough to get our guys up, then I think we have issues. But I don’t think that’s going to be a problem in getting up and understanding what this game means to the team.”
Here are a few more reasons to watch:
A breakthrough goal would be heroic. Soccer is unique among sports in how it can pop off from “nothing is happening” to “OMG everything is happening” in mere seconds. Expect that to be the case if and when the Americans, who have one goal in the tournament and none in the past 150-plus minutes of play, can find a goal here. Will it be talisman Christian Pulisic, saving the day as Lionel Messi did for Argentina on Saturday? Or the sensational Weston McKennie, who had the best chances against England? Perhaps Gio Reyna will emerge from long controversial spells on the bench, or an even less likely hero will be minted.
The tactical matchup will be fascinating. Iran likely just needs a draw to advance, so this match may well see Iran coach Carlos Queiroz go the cynical route, play five defenders in the back and “park the bus” (in the parlance of our times) in front of their goal. But Iran’s two best players are strikers (Mehdi Taremi, Sardar Azmoun), so playing both of them would rule out the obvious 5-4-1 formation — maybe it’s a 5-3-2 or 5-3-1-1. If Wales takes a lead against England, meanwhile, Iran could be forced to open up to push for a goal and a win. Keep an eye on how the USA adjusts to conservative Iran tactics, by tweaking its typical 4-3-3 setup or pushing the fullbacks farther up the field into the attack.
“I don’t think we’re going to be having to take those risks right away,” Zimmerman said. “Sure, if it’s getting later, we’re getting down to the last 10, 15 minutes, I’m sure things will change, but we’re coming out aggressive and we’re going to make sure to come out on the front foot to get some chances.”
The goalie is out of a movie. Five years ago, goalkeeper Matt Turner — out of Park Ridge, NJ, and Fairfield University — was playing for the Richmond Kickers in the third tier of American soccer (USL League One), which is approximately the 37th tier of world soccer. He worked his way up the depth chart with the New England Revolution and became a star in MLS; now he’s the backup for English heavyweight Arsenal. What a rise. With Turner, 28, in the net, the US ranks ninth in the field with a PSxG +/- of +0.7 (don’t worry, I’ll explain: the Post-Shot expected Goals, the number of goals the US is expected to have allowed based on the quality of shots the goalie has faced, is 1.7, but Turner has only allowed 1, for a net of 0.7). He may be tasked with rescuing the USA with a crucial save.
Get on the bandwagon. Fox reported a record-setting audience for a men’s soccer match on US English language television with 15.377 million viewers for USA-England the day after Thanksgiving. The tide of interest in soccer and in American soccer specifically — domestic leagues MLS and NWSL — is rising in this country. There’s precious little time to be an early adopter. Springsteen’s only playing a couple more shows at the Stone Pony.
Afternoon sports! This is for the “why are there no more World Series day games?!?” crowd. Well, here you go. Play hooky from work — or put on your best busy face and open a second screen.
Today’s back page
🏀 Joe Harris provides Nets with Kevin Durant backup in win over Magic … but they lose Ben Simmons to knee “soreness”
🏒 Rangers blow another multi-goal lead in alarming loss to Devils … BROOKS: This Igor Shesterkin is far from good enough
🏈 Mike White’s next Jets challenge after familiar feat
Teeth of the schedule
Adjusting to reality is difficult, especially in sports. If you’re the defending Super Bowl champion Rams and thought a slow start to the season was merely a title hangover that would be gone by November, it isn’t easy to head into December as the No. 15 team on the NFC playoff ladder with little chance of climbing into the mix.
In New York, we’ve seen the opposite. Two teams predicted to show signs of progress, at best, or compete for a QB-worthy draft pick, at worst, have reached the holiday season in playoff position. What once were two feel-good stories of teams playing far better than almost any fan could have dreamed before the season has evolved into a pressure-cooker in which every game, every play, matters. There’s no time to allow Zach Wilson to work through his issues when every win is needed and Mike White gives the Jets a better chance at that here and now. A Giants loss at home to the Lions isn’t merely the growing pains of a team still in rebuild mode, but a gut-punch missed opportunity.
The life of Jets and Giants fans is no longer the carefree silver linings playbook of finding progress in a season full of losses. There are real stakes involved now. Meaningful games in December. But that’s where this new reality will meet its greatest test. The schedules for both appear more likely to leave them at home for the postseason than in it.
Jets’ final six games:
Dec. 4: at Minnesota
Dec. 11: at Buffalo
Dec. 18: vs. Detroit
Dec. 22: vs. Jacksonville
Jan. 1: at Seattle
Jan. 8: at Miami
The Jets’ closing slate will see them underdogs in road games at Minnesota, Buffalo, Seattle and Miami sandwiched around a back-to-back at home against the frisky Lions and a Jaguars club that just beat Baltimore. On paper, the Jets may only be looking at another two wins.
Giants’ final six games:
Dec. 4: vs. Washington
Dec. 11: vs. Philadelphia
Dec. 18: at Washington
Dec. 24: at Minnesota
Jan. 1: vs. Indianapolis
Jan. 8: at Philadelphia
The Giants’ task isn’t much easier. They have two games each against a surprisingly competent — on the field, at least — Washington club and the dynamic Eagles, a Christmas eve trip to Minnesota and a New Year’s Day date with a Colts team that has shown some signs of life since changing coaches. Would another three wins be enough to get into the dance?
Yes, there is a potentially bleak picture to be painted over the next six weeks. But there’s also a chance either, or both, could create a masterpiece that defies the paint-by-numbers work we all thought they had in them a few months ago.
— Paul Forrester
Final Four watch
The stakes are unusually low for the coming championship weekend. A chaotic conclusion to college football’s regular season produced losses by four top-10 teams — including three playoff hopefuls (Ohio State, LSU, Clemson) — making this Saturday fairly straightforward. The country’s three remaining undefeated teams (Georgia, Michigan, TCU) are essentially locks for the College Football Playoff, even if any of them suffer their first defeat in their respective championship games.
The fourth spot will be decided Friday night at the Pac-12 Championship in Las Vegas. If USC (11-1) tops Utah (9-3), the Trojans will have a chance to play for their first national championship since Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush led the program to back-to-back titles (2003-04). If the Utes claim another win over USC — the defending Pac-12 champs handed the Trojans their only loss, 43-42, on a last-minute two-point conversion in Utah — a team sitting at home this weekend will be the beneficiary.
Tonight — in the penultimate release of the College Football Playoff rankings — we’ll learn which team will be Utah’s biggest supporter. It is most likely that Ohio State (11-1) enters the weekend at No. 5 — its ranking in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls — and would naturally slide into the final playoff spot as the nation’s only one-loss team if USC falls. The Buckeyes reached the playoff in similar fashion in 2017 despite failing to play for the Big Ten title.
No two-loss team has ever made the playoff. Tonight’s rankings will reveal whether Alabama (10-2) or Tennessee (10-2) have any hope to seize what would be the most controversial selection in playoff history.
Neither presents a strong case to jump the one-loss Buckeyes, who hold noteworthy wins over Penn State and Notre Dame. The Crimson Tide will argue their two losses came on last-second plays while ignoring two of its wins also came on last-second plays and none of its wins came against teams currently ranked in the top 20. The Vols boast two of the country’s best wins (Alabama, at LSU), but likely shredded any shot of advancing after last week’s 63-38 loss to South Carolina.
Perhaps the committee will see it differently. The group makes puzzling decisions every week. But it almost always gets the final four right. Usually, it is because there is no reason to have a lengthy debate. The selections are fairly obvious. It will be the same again this year.
— Howie Kussoy
Deshaun Watson’s 11-game suspension has come and gone, which means he will be playing football on an NFL Sunday this weekend for the first time in almost two seasons.
Of course, as we all know, it isn’t that simple. He returns after not playing for the Texans last season amid sexual misconduct allegations that eventually saw him suspended for most of this year. He returns after being hit with more than two dozen civil lawsuits regarding his predatory behavior with massage therapists. He returns with two suits still pending. He returns to play in Houston, the city where that behavior occurred. And he returns without anyone really knowing if he understands why what he did was wrong or if he has learned from it.
Like many a Browns fan, it has left me flummoxed as to how to attach myself to the team as long as Watson is the starting quarterback. There is the revolting prospect of rooting for the success of a man who clearly took advantage of women again and again and again with few consequences and will be cheered on by tens of thousands in Cleveland. He also wasn’t indicted, sketchy as that process may have been. He served a lengthy suspension. And he is far from the only athlete whose fame on the field is used as a shield for the ugly way he treats humans off the field.
As easy as it might sound to just disavow the team after the Browns signed Watson, fanhood often doesn’t work that way. There are associations with family, with memories, with identity. Those aren’t easy to cast aside.
So, no, I won’t be trashing what few pieces of Browns paraphernalia I reluctantly have held onto through their mostly miserable history (at least since their return to the NFL in 1999), but I can’t say I’ll be adding anything more to the collection. No, I won’t root against them, but I won’t be inviting any family and friends over to watch the big game anytime soon (not that the team is involved in any big games, anyway). What I will be doing is what I have done most of my life with this organization — watching games in anguished silence, hoping they give me a reason to think better days are ahead.
I don’t like my odds.
— Paul Forrester