If there had been a working clock inside Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa, it would have read 90:00. But no one needed reminding. The time crunch was tangible.
Tim Howard knew he was under the gun when he caught Rafik Saïfi’s goal-bound header. He looked up quickly, hoping to spy a glimmer of hope amid the gloom. Up in the stands, Ian Darke was calling the Group C finale alongside ESPN colleague John Harkes, trying to balance his play-by-play responsibilities with the “somber feeling” that was setting in.
“Everybody was getting ready to do a ‘What went wrong’ type of piece about the USA at the World Cup again,” Darke says.
The American reporters nearby were doing the same. Internet deadlines being what they were, most were several hundred words into their U.S. national team post mortems. England was beating Slovenia in Port Elizabeth, and it became clear that Bob Bradley’s squad needed all three points in Pretoria to secure passage to the 2010 World Cup’s round-of-16. But the U.S. and Algeria remained scoreless as the first of four stoppage-time minutes elapsed. Editors were waiting for their stories, which gave writers little choice but to give up on the field and focus on their keyboards.
“The mood in that final couple of minutes was very downbeat,” Darke says.
The players on the pitch were torn as well.
“I remember looking over to the bench and trying to a get a gauge on what the [England-Slovenia] score was. You were hoping it would fall your way, but I think we were expecting we were going to have to win the game,” Landon Donovan recalls.
Easier said than done. Algeria was playing somewhat conservatively, even though it maintained faint second-round hopes of its own. And the U.S., which had already come from behind twice during a roller coaster group stage, was having one of those frustrating football days. Clint Dempsey scored what appeared to be a good goal in the 20th minute, only to have it ruled out on a close offside call. He then hit the right post in the 57th. Eleven minutes later, Edson Buddle sent a point-blank header straight at the goalkeeper. Jozy Altidore and Benny Feilhaber had good looks as well, and Algeria’s Raïs M’Bolhi saved Michael Bradley’s thunderous free kick.
“We’ve all played in a number of games where you dominate and you get chance after chance and for whatever reason, it doesn’t go in,” Donovan says. “Not that we were going to give up. We obviously didn’t give up. But there was that feeling where you say, ‘This might be the day when we’re not going to score.’”
An ocean away, in bars and living rooms across the U.S., viewers experienced the agony. We know this because there are videos: grainy, sometimes shaky amateur productions shot on phones or laptops that reveal the tension and despair on so many faces. This was a shared experience. And in a few of those videos, you can see fans look up, eyes widening, as that glimmer for which Howard was hoping appeared. In an instant, it all fell into place.
“You get a certain sense with players,” the goalkeeper says. “One thing Landon and I have shared—we’ve developed over the years with Everton and the national team—is when I get the ball, just because he’s got great stamina, he always pulls out wide and gets forward. Often times he doesn’t even look at me. His back is turned and he just gets going.”
Says Donovan, “It’s not just the ability to execute the throw, but it’s the ability to already have a picture of what the field looked like when he got the ball. He knew where I was and it didn’t take more than a second. We always say time favors the defense and maybe if it’s a second longer, if you look the other way or he doesn’t know I’m there, maybe the play doesn’t develop the same way.”
FIFA’s global TV feed cut away to follow Saïfi and by the time it returned to the play, Donovan was at midfield, running at full speed with no one in front of him. Algeria was at sea.
“Once he settled it, I had the feeling something would happen,” Howard says. “He was going to have options—good options.”
Fans felt hope. The writers looked up from their laptops and Darke came to life: “Landon Donovan! There are things on here for the USA! Can they do it here?”
If there was going to be a goal that defined the era when American soccer touched the mainstream, it would have to be scored by Donovan on the counter. Never had a U.S. player demonstrated such comfort with the ball at speed, and never before had the national team boasted such a consistently effective weapon. He was its first human highlight reel and by the time the 2010 World Cup rolled around, its all-time leading scorer.
Claudio Reyna brought sophistication and nuance, and Brian McBride was a world-class target man. Eric Wynalda and, later, Clint Dempsey combined flair with a nose for the goal. But no one could unhinge a defense as spectacularly as the kid from San Bernardino County, who turned pro at 17 and made his first World Cup team at 20. While effective up front and in tight spaces, he was deadliest on the run.
Consequently, tactics were tailored to what the U.S.’s best player did best, and its fortunes frequently depended on his doing it. But that responsibility weighed heavily. Complex, sensitive and sometimes troubled by the scrutiny that came with stardom, Donovan could overcompensate when younger and overthink as he aged. He was polarizing. Some thought him arrogant or coddled. Others claimed he lacked the confidence or courage to leave his comfort zone. In reality, he simply was a person in progress, periodically private or peculiar, who wasn’t easy to define.
As the summer of 2010 approached, Donovan was at a crossroads. The 2006 World Cup had been a disaster. The U.S. finished winless, last in its group, and Donovan was a tentative shadow of himself. The following year, David Beckham joined him at the L.A. Galaxy, awkwardly assumed the captaincy and left Donovan feeling marginalized.
The drama continued through 2009. Fortunes improved on the field, where he helped the U.S. to the FIFA Confederations Cup final and won the MLS MVP award. But at home, times were tough. Donovan’s separation from his wife forced him to delve deeply into the person he was and to consider more carefully the person he wanted to be. He would say in 2013, “There was something inside me that was pulling me to get out of [marriage] ... I became not a great man.”
As the U.S. gathered at Princeton University to prepare for the World Cup in South Africa, the questions centered on Donovan’s temperament rather than his talent.
“Now there’s more responsibility. In my opinion, there’s also greater opportunity. And I enjoy the challenge of that now. In 2006, that became burdensome because I wasn’t ready for it. And now I’m ready for it and I’m really excited for it,” he said before leaving for Johannesburg. “You can take the soccer component out of it. In life, you have opportunities that come around every so often that you’d like to take advantage of … Whether that’s in any facet of your life, in your job in your personal life, anything, when you don’t do that it’s disappointing.”
Donovan played well in the World Cup’s first two games and scored the goal that got the U.S. back into its match against Slovenia. But that wasn’t enough. Group C, in which England was the seeded team, was as forgiving a quartet as the Americans could hope to draw. Bob Bradley’s squad had to advance—no excuses. And despite outplaying Algeria in the must-win finale, it still needed a goal.
Luckily, Howard found Donovan on the run. He was 28, still in his athletic prime, and it was in that moment at Loftus Versfeld, with the ball at his feet and green grass before him, that any complications and consternation fell away.
“When Landon is that guy and lets things go and just enjoys his talent, you can see his talent in abundance,” defender Jay DeMerit says.
“The beauty of those situations, and why soccer is so different from any other sport, is when you’re running with the ball, your instincts take over. And so you’re doing these things hundreds and hundreds of times, then in that moment, it’s instinct,” Donovan says. “That’s always been so much fun for me and I’ve enjoyed that so much. That moment was a perfect moment for the way I like to play … That’s when your instincts are much more powerful than any other thoughts would ever be. We’re conditioned to know what to do in those situations and you just let everything else go.”
He had so much room to work with that he needed only one more quick touch to take him to within about 30 yards of the Algerian goal. Altidore was running on Donovan’s right and Dempsey was on his left, heading toward the heart of the penalty area. Feilhaber was in support. Donovan slipped the ball to Altidore, who then crossed it to Dempsey at the six-yard line. M’Bolhi smothered the shot and the ball popped backward into empty space. The three U.S. forwards and two Algerian defenders all ran themselves out of the play.
“I remember saying ‘Yes! No! Oh God,’” Howard says.
Having sprinted the length of the field, Donovan kept going after passing to Altidore. He accelerated when Dempsey’s bid was saved.
“I was waiting a bit in case Jozy pulled it back. But then as he passed it to Clint, I kept my run going and when the ball hit the goalie and rolled out, there was a second where I was convinced he’d smother the ball. That he had it. But in a split second the ball was rolling toward me and that’s when the instinct, the second gear, kicked in,” Donovan says. “Without even thinking about it, the excitement of it and then realizing there was this chance, it just took over.”
The finish was simple, yet momentous.
“My view was perfect. I was celebrating before he even shot the ball,” Feilhaber says, joking that if Donovan had somehow whiffed, he might have made it there in time to score himself.
“But there’s a reason that he’s standing there. Because he runs more than everybody else,” Feilhaber explains. “That’s why he’s so good, getting into the box at the right time and believing the ball is going to be there. The finish was easy. But getting there was the hard part, especially in the 91st minute of the game.”
Says Howard, “That’s Landon. You talk about a guy who can gallop and cover ground gracefully, there’s no coincidence the ball fell to Landon right in front of the goal. No coincidence. He knows where goals get scored and he can sense where the ball will fall. He’s scored enough goals to know.”
There was pandemonium in Pretoria.
Donovan raced toward the corner flag, slid on his belly and was met almost immediately by the entire U.S. bench, led by reserve midfielder Stuart Holden. DeMerit was the last to arrive, and there was plenty of passion, if not precision, in his somersault onto to the top of the pile.
“My right stud is avoiding our conditioning coach’s face by about half an inch on the dismount,” he says.
Minutes later, the U.S. was a World Cup group winner for the first time in 80 years. Players celebrated on the field as the stadium’s scoreboard replayed video of the goal. Meanwhile, former President Bill Clinton made his way from FIFA’s suite down to the locker room.
“The crazy thing is you’re on the verge of being completely sad after the game, going home, packing your bags and leaving the next morning and within a few minutes you’re in this euphoric state and in the back of your mind you’re still in the tournament. Where do we go next? Who are we playing,” Donovan says. “My recollection of it is just being so hectic and finally getting back to the locker room, seeing guys with beers open, seeing President Clinton, seeing a bunch of our U.S. Soccer staff in there, half the room is sort of a look of relief from the suits in the room and the rest of the coaching staff and the players are just elated.”
DeMerit was on a trainer’s table in the middle of it all, getting his tongue stitched up. He’d split it open in a collision shortly after the match started.
“I was just swallowing blood for 90 minutes and trying to stay focused,” he says. “I’m getting stitches and Clinton walks in with his crew and a bunch of Budweisers. I’ve got blood everywhere and can hardly speak and there’s this full party going on around me. It was this ultimate American moment.”
Technical difficulties prevented it from becoming even more so. U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati and his staff tried in vain to locate a phone they could use to conference in a call from the White House. President Barack Obama eventually spoke to the team after dinner the following day.
By then, Donovan and his teammates were getting a sense of what they’d accomplished.
“It was like this bomb that went off. I’m getting texts from my friends in New York saying, ‘Times Square is shut down. There’s people in the streets,’” DeMerit says. “Bars were going crazy. People that don’t give a s--- about soccer are out in the streets saying how much they love the sport and they love America’s team. For the game in the U.S., we need moments like that.”
Darke also played a role in that soccer supernova. His call now is almost as iconic as the play itself: “Can they do it here? Cross! And Dempsey is denied again! And Donovan has scored! Oh, can you believe this? Go, go, USA! Certainly through! Oh, it’s incredible. You could not write a script like this!”
Looking back on it, the veteran English broadcaster admits that he’s “slightly embarrassed” by his lack of neutrality, but he’s confident his enthusiasm fit the moment.
“I was very aware I was talking to the American audience and the reaction that goal would have in the United States, from going out of the World Cup to suddenly being top of your group in an instant,” he says. “It became clear to me, over time, that it was the breakthrough moment in the rise in popularity of the game in the U.S. … I think a lot of people in past years would ask, ‘Why aren’t there more goals? Why is it so dull? Nothing happens.’ And I think the way that happened, the incredible high at the end of a goalless game, I think a few people said, ‘Okay, I get it now. That was amazing.’”
Gradually, videos of American fans “getting it” were uploaded to YouTube. They showed bars and restaurants and a group of people watching through a window on a New York City street and a guy throwing himself down a flight of stairs, all exploding in joy. The U.S. national team’s three group-stage games in South Africa averaged more than 11 million viewers back home. That was up 68% from the 2006 World Cup, according to Nielsen, and it led to an audience of more than 19 million for the second-round match against Ghana three days later. That number was higher than the viewership for every game of the 2010 World Series and the first six of the 2010 NBA Finals.
Back at U.S. Soccer’s base camp in Irene, communications staffers figured it might be fun to combine the reaction videos. But someone beat them to it. The compilation, complete with the theme from Rudy, now has more than 4.5 million views. It blew the players away.
“To see all of their reactions, I think that re-energized us. Look at all the people behind us. Look at all the people now that are going to support us for the next one” DeMerit says. “It made us feel like we were doing it for more than ourselves. We’re on the cusp of having a country that doesn’t really care about soccer, really care about soccer. What a rare opportunity.”
The U.S. was unable to take full advantage, falling to Ghana, 2-1, in Rustenburg. The Americans had overcome deficits to draw England and Slovenia and then defeated Algeria at the death. When the Black Stars struck three minutes into extra time, the U.S. had run out of miracles.
Nevertheless, American soccer already had its viral moment. Donovan’s goal was its Immaculate Reception, the “Where were you when…” play that anchored a transition from one stage of popularity to the next. The generation to which the sport most appeals was able to make its voice heard. That generation’s best player lit the fuse.
Clinton already had a beer in his hand by the time Donovan arrived in the locker room because as the official man of the match, he was required to conduct a press conference. There, while his teammates celebrated and a legion of fans old and new went bonkers back home, Donovan talked through tears.
“I’ve been through a lot in the last four years,” he told reporters. “I’m so glad it culminated this way, and it makes me believe in good in the world, when you try to do things the right way, it’s good to see them get rewarded.”
Donovan’s detractors called him ‘Landycakes’. It was a swipe at his supposed lack of toughness and maturity. But it hasn’t been heard much since that night. In crafting that viral moment, he’d recast his image and altered his legacy. And there was a sense that he knew it. But more important, he’d proven something to himself—that he could live in the now, reach his potential and rise to the occasion.
“I don’t see it as redemption for me. I didn’t need to show anyone or prove anything. It always bothers me when athletes say nobody believes in them, that they’re out to prove people wrong. That’s not why you play,” Donovan says. “When I play, it’s a microcosm of my life and I try to be the best I can be. In 2006, I wasn’t and that was really disappointing. That was the first time in my career that I realized soccer was more than a game. In that way, it was pretty depressing because I took a lot of criticism. [But] the biggest feeling from all that was that I felt like I let myself down. I knew I was better than that and 2010 was a realization that if I want to do it, I can do it. I just have to dedicate myself. I did, and it was nice to see it rewarded.”
There was a hero’s welcome despite defeat to Ghana. Donovan hit the talk show circuit and sat down with David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Regis Philbin and others.
“They always say it’s a whirlwind tour and it kind of was that. It was hectic and it was great for our sport,” he says. “But the difference between that and walking my dogs on the beach, I’ll walk my dogs on the beach.”
He would remain an individual, albeit one who seemed a bit more comfortable in his own skin. That was evident on the field, where he captained the Galaxy to two more MLS Cup titles. And it was crucial off of it, where he was able to acknowledge publicly that he needed to recalibrate his life. Donovan’s three-month sabbatical during the winter of 2012-13 came with criticism and repercussion. But it also was a testament to the power of that moment in Pretoria. He understood the game was meant to be enjoyed, and he wasn’t going to change for soccer’s sake. He would find happiness by being true to who he was. Most fans, if the response to Donovan’s exclusion from the 2014 World Cup team is any indication, now seem to accept that.
In defining an era of American soccer, the goal helped set its best player free.
“Being around the guy for four or five years, you see there’s a lot more pressure on his shoulders,” DeMerit says. “Maybe some of it is self-imposed, but most of it wasn’t. There’s certain things he has to live up to and he’s kind of in a sticky situation because he’s pretty guarded in his ways. But in that moment [against Algeria], you could see him let go.
“It was just a really special moment and for him to be the guy who scored, with all that pressure on him, to see him enjoying that moment and all that came with it, it was great to see.”