Miss after agonizing miss, the United States was watching its World Cup hopes slip away. There was Jozy Altidore’s header—straight at the goalie. There was Michael Bradley’s free kick—punched away. There were at least half a dozen others—all kept out of the net. And there was Clint Dempsey’s goal—the one that didn’t count.
But with less than three minutes left, salvation came. Landon Donovan (who else?) popped up in the right place at the right time in a chaotic penalty area. With a clean strike from an ugly rebound, he swept the U.S. to the top of Group C and into last 16 of the World Cup with a 1-0 victory over Algeria.
“The ball fell to me, time kind of stopped, and I couldn’t miss from there,” Donovan told ESPN.
Click Below to Watch the U.S.’ Winning Goal
For 91 minutes, it seemed as though the American goal would never come. The U.S. just didn’t look good enough to finish off Algeria. Meanwhile, England’s early goal against Slovenia 600 miles away in Port Elizabeth meant that a draw was no longer good enough for the Americans. And until Donovan scored, the American army of pundits was ready to blame another referee for a pair of injustices committed against Dempsey.
• Tunku Varadarajan: Are World Cup Refs Against the U.S.?• Full coverage of the World CupThe first time, Dempsey was called offside after tucking the ball home from six yards. Replays showed that he was level with the last defender, certainly not offside. It seemed like the Slovenia game all over again. The second time, with less than 10 minutes remaining in the game, he was elbowed in the face by an Algerian defender. It should have been a penalty kick and a red card. Instead, all Dempsey had to show for himself was a bloody lip. The talking points were all there for another choke on the biggest stage—statistics like the U.S. going winless in 10 of its previous 11 first-round games were already being sharpened.
But, the Americans’ South African adventure continues. They rode their luck against England and rued it against Slovenia. They have not played especially well and often seemed out of ideas. But none of that matters now in Pretoria. For all of its inconsistency, its lack of poise against weaker teams, the United States has earned the privilege of playing Group D’s runner-up in the next round.
That, however, could yet turn into a booby prize. Because of its loss to Serbia, Germany could be staring at second place in the group and awaiting the United States. But it could also be Serbia or Ghana in the next round—even Australia, if a series of miracles occurs. In the meantime, Donovan will relish his long-awaited coming of age. After he disappointed in 2002 (he now admits he was too immature) and stayed anonymous in 2006, his moment has arrived.
“I’m shocked and I’m so proud of our guys,” he said. “Unbelievable.”
Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.