PRETORIA, South Africa -- The line between stunning, historic success and abject failure is ruthlessly thin at a World Cup.
The goal, the one the United States wanted so desperately and needed even more badly to escape the first round, just wouldn't come. Visions of very bad things were surely starting to taunt U.S. fans, thousands of whom shrank nervously into the South African night with each scoreless minute. This team was about to become the U.S. side that couldn't win a game at World Cup 2010, with the sure coaching changes and player admonishments that would follow.
But then came the goal, a rebound buried by Landon Donovan, and now the entire U.S. South African effort -- the entire four-year cycle, really -- will be seen altogether differently, for this is the side that didn't lose a first-round match here.
"We all knew we had it in us, we all had the mentality and the fight in us," said striker Jozy Altidore, who said he never doubted the goal would eventually arrive. "I kept believing we were going to win the game. We knew we needed the three points and that was it. There was no other result that would do. We knew we were going to keep getting chances, it was just a matter of putting them away."
Other players, who hung around the field for extended periods, celebrating and applauding fans, also insisted they never stopped believing the magic moment would arrive; tight locker room accord is a recurring theme around the 23-man roster and the myriad support staff, and they said they drew upon it once more.
Still, it looked for all the world like the U.S. side, surely the better one on a brilliant, crisp night inside Loftus Versfeld Stadium, would come and go with the U.S. offense doing everything except manufacturing that one sorely needed strike.
It will be more or less forgotten, but Clint Dempsey may have been the victim of yet another close, important call that just wouldn't go the U.S. way in South Africa. Herculez Gomez had time and space to line up a first-half blast but crushed goalkeeper Rais Bolhi with it rather than bypass him. The rebound fell again to Gomez. Dempsey tucked away the shot across goal but was called offside.
Altidore blazed one over goal, one that he and Donovan nearly collided trying to reach.
The goal mouth frustration continued. It was Dempsey again getting unlucky in the 57th as he finished a counter attack with a curling little ball at full speed. It had Bolhi beat but just nicked the inside the right post. Dempsey was first to the rebound but needed more precision with the bouncing ball that was begging to be put away from close range.
Edson Buddle had just been introduced when he got onto Steve Cherundolo's cross about 10 minutes later, hammering his point-blank header right at Bolhi.
"Sometimes we wanted it too much," Altidore said. "We always wanted to be too emphatic without our chances."
Altidore may not have had many of the 22 U.S. shots (10 on target), but he was certainly tormenting the Algerian defense with speed and audacious turns. He was also taking a lot of punishment. He was responsible for three bookings on Algerian defenders who needed to resort to fouling.
"It was tough out there," Altidore said. "They were more physical than I thought. I was just trying to make things tough on them."
On the bench, U.S. coach Bob Bradley was doing his part in search of the goal, gradually introducing more offensive thrust. Maurice Edu, more of a holding presence in the center of the park, was subtracted for striker Buddle. Later, left back Jonathan Bornstein came off, replaced by midfielder DaMarcus Beasley. Making his 2010 debut, Beasley pushed forward liberally from the left back spot.
"If you stay in the game long enough, there are going to be games were you say, 'Maybe it's not our night,' " Bradley said. "But as a coach, you just stay in the game. You keep asking yourself what else you can do to keep giving yourself a chance at the goal. Then, in the end, it's just the players who do it."
Algeria was never really much of a threat at the other end; Tim Howard had his easiest night here so far. The back line did ride out a couple of bumpy moments early, as Jay DeMerit flailed and Cherundolo, a rock so far at South Africa 2010, even let one ball squeeze by. But the Algerians couldn't make them pay and the United States managed not to concede early once again. Thus, the Americans played a World Cup game without conceding a first-half goal for the first time since 2002.
Said Donovan: "Sometimes in soccer you have games like that where you get a lot of chances and they don't go in," Donovan said. "The only thing you can control is to keep going. When we were pushing, our guys in the back did an unbelievable job of stopping counter after counter, so that we could continue to have a chance to score."