Better late then never.
That phrase couldn’t have applied more to the United States men’s soccer team on Wednesday afternoon in Pretoria, South Africa, where a single goal meant moving on in the 2010 World Cup, and a lack of one meant going home.
Through 90 minutes of regulation time, the Americans had failed to find the back of the net (at least, not officially) in its final Group C match.
Desperation had set in with just four minutes of stoppage time added as the U.S. and Algeria were battling to a scoreless stalemate. The Americans knew that a victory meant advancing out of group play and on to the single-elimination knockout bracket, but a tie or a loss would end their World Cup stay.
It even appeared for a brief moment that Algeria would be the team to finally break through with a score when a close–range header from Algerian forward Rafik Saifi (who after the match, indefensibly slapped a female Algerian reporter across the face) was on target at the 90:33 mark.
However, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was there to snatch Saifi’s attempt out of the air along the post to his right, and touch off the perfect counter attack, resulting in one of the most monumental goals in U.S. soccer history, just thirteen seconds later.
The winning play developed in an instant as Howard fired a terrific throw to the perfect choice –- midfielder Landon Donovan, the greatest player in U.S. national team history, who took Howard’s toss at the midfield stripe and played the ball toward the Algerian goal. Donovan passed ahead, into the Algerian goal box to forward Jozy Altidore, who had streaked along the right side. Altidore took Donovan’s feed and sent a crossing pass into the middle of the box for midfielder Clint Dempsey.
Algerian goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi dove out to meet Altidore’s pass, deflecting it away from a charging Dempsey who tripped over M’Bolhi, before falling over the goal line. But, M’Bolhi’s attempt at snaring the ball was impeded by his own teammate, on Algerian defender Madjid Boughera’s sliding attempt to clear the ball to safety. Dempsey’s mere attempt to score was sufficient, as it helped create enough chaos to free the ball off of M’Bolhi’s hands, toward the middle of the goal box.
That’s when Donovan, the all-time leading U.S. scorer with 44 goals in 126 games, who was trailing the play the whole way, was there for the follow. He fired a shot into the low left corner of the net at 90:46, to fittingly score if not the most important, at least the most dramatic goal in U.S. soccer lore.
Donovan, the unquestioned heart and soul of the U.S. team, didn’t have a great game before lifting the U.S. to its stunning 1-0 victory. As great as he’s been over his U.S. career, Donovan has had a reputation for disappearing in big games, and he did that again for much of the second half on Wednesday. But, he more than answered those questions with some late game heroics that changed everything for the U.S.
One rebound. One shot. One goal. The difference between the U.S. (1-0-2) ending its World Cup hopes and not only advancing out of Group C, but becoming the unlikely winner of its group, ahead of clear group favorite England (1-0-2), which advanced to the knockout round as the Group C runner-up, with a 1-0 blanking of Slovenia (1-1-1) at the same time the U.S. was defeating Algeria (0-2-1). England, which lost the tiebreaker to the U.S. (scoring two goals in Group C to the four notched by the Americans), will next face Group D winner, Germany.
While there’s still much left to do for the U.S. in this year’s World Cup, Donovan’s goal already marked a good degree of significance for U.S. soccer. It wasn’t just that the U.S. captured only its second World Cup group win ever (its last was in the first World Cup, in 1930), but it was the way in which that feat was accomplished, with the resiliency, fight, and excitement that was on display throughout the three Group C games in which the U.S. competed –- all qualities which won’t exactly put soccer on the same level as major American sports like football, baseball, basketball, or ice hockey any time soon, but which figure to help the world’s most-watched sport gain popularity in the U.S. There may just be some young kids looking to be next Donovan now, instead of the next Peyton Manning or Kobe Bryant.
In its opening game against England, the U.S. rebounded from allowing a goal just 3½ minutes in, gaining a 1-1 tie aided by a lucky goal after a misplay from English goalkeeper Robert Green. In its second match, the U.S. rightfully pulled off a remarkable comeback after spotting Slovenia a 2-0 halftime lead. Donovan, as the undoubted face of U.S. soccer for nearly a decade, started that rally with a goal to cut Slovenia’s lead to 2-1. After the U.S. tied that match on a goal by Michael Bradley, the son of U.S. head coach Bob Bradley, the Americans had seemingly climbed the mountain in the second half, until rookie referee Koman Coulibaly waived off what should have been a winning goal by U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu in the 86th minute, off of a brilliant free kick into the box from Donovan.
On Wednesday, further excitement was provided and there was even more adversity for the U.S. to finally overcome.
Just 5:35 into the match, the U.S. barely survived a hard shot by Algerian forward Rafik Djebbour as it glanced off of the crossbar. At 19:53, another U.S. goal was mistakenly disallowed when Dempsey scored but was incorrectly called for being offside. Later, Altidore shot a loose ball just before Donovan, who had a better angle, could shoot from six yards out, but Altidore sailed the ball over the goal at 36:04. And, at 56:13, Dempsey bounced a shot off of the right post before missing a close follow-up shot wide to the left, two seconds later.
The tension and pressure mounted as the game wore on, with both the U.S. and Algeria each having several other chances. Knowing what was at stake, the 0-0 score didn’t deter any of the on-the-edge-of-your-seat anticipation.
And, when the main man of U.S. soccer came through with little time to spare, it was as if soccer, for at least one brief moment, became as popular in the U.S. as in the rest of the world.
That feeing is something that former President Bill Clinton is helping to continue. Clinton, who took in Wednesday’s match sitting next to FIFA President Joseph Blatter, is on the committee to help secure the U.S. as the World Cup hosts in 2018 or 2022. The former leader of the free world was impressed with how the U.S. team competed until the very end in the world’s biggest sporting event, saying “They have a good head and a good heart, collectively… and, they just kept playing.”
Similar to the way Donovan silenced his critics, the U.S. win over Algeria showed Americans back home that yes, even previously-thought boring 1-0 soccer matches can indeed be as thrilling as an NFL overtime win, a walk-off home run, or a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
For the third straight game, the U.S. found a way. And, now we’ll get to see what Donovan and his band of Cardiac Kids can do for an encore. First up, will be a meeting with Group D runner-up, Ghana (1-1-1), which sent the U.S. home with a 2-1 victory over the U.S. in the Americans’ final game of group play in the 2006 World Cup.
For now though, it was enough for the U.S. to find one goal to further its quest of a much bigger one.
And, for at least one day back home, U.S.A. stood for Unbelievable Soccer Achievement.