It had to be over. The U.S. had blown its chance, falling short in the easiest World Cup group of its history, and now the response would be merciless back home. You couldn't advance ahead of Slovenia? You couldn't beat Algeria? All those millions of mainstream sports fans who'd tuned in over the past two weeks would go back to their other interests. It would be a long four years until the next World Cup in Brazil.
Standing in his goal, Tim Howard couldn't shake the notion. "I just thought the crazy thing is we could be on a plane tomorrow," he recalled thinking. "It didn't mean anything in the game, but I didn't want to go home. I was kind of apprehensive about losing."
Even midfielder Landon Donovan stole a glance at the amount of injury time remaining. "I usually don't look at the fourth official, but tonight I saw him," Donovan said. "I saw the four minutes go up. There was a sense that there would be one more good chance."
There had already been several. In the most agonizing U.S. game in years, the Yanks had squandered so many opportunities to score the goal they desperately needed to survive. Jozy Altidore somehow launched the ball over the crossbar from seven yards away. Clint Dempsey hit the post after being in alone on goalkeeper Rais Bolhi. Edson Buddle headed a glorious cross right into Bolhi's breadbasket.
And Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere had disallowed Dempsey's apparent goal in the 20th minute for offside, even though replays showed that Dempsey was even with the next-to-last Algerian defender, Madjid Bougherra.
By the 90th minute, it was clear that Donovan had not enjoyed one of his finest games. Oh, he had created a few chances in the first half, but the six-time U.S. player of the year had gone absent for large parts of the second half, a surprise after his monster second half against Slovenia.
It was just about all over. But then that one chance came. Howard unleashed a 50-yard NFL-caliber throw to Donovan, who passed to Altidore. "I didn't run too hard because I knew there were guys in front of the goal and thought he might cut it back to me," Donovan would say. Instead Altidore passed toward Dempsey; the ball hit Bolhi, who spilled it right into the path of an onrushing Donovan. "From there it's just instinct," Donovan said.
From there, Donovan buried it.
And suddenly this most improbable, heart-stopping U.S. run in the World Cup found a way to continue. Historic? You bet. For the first time in the modern era -- I don't count the 1930 World Cup, in which the U.S. played in a three-team group -- the Americans earned at least five points and won a World Cup group. The U.S. also set a World Cup record for the fewest total minutes that a World Cup group winner had been leading in its first three games: a grand total of two minutes. (The old record, 21 minutes, was set by the Netherlands in 1994.)
What does that say? That the U.S. has spent a lot of time keeping its fans on the edge of their seats -- and, in the end, rewarded them handsomely.
As a result of this remarkable day, the U.S. will meet Ghana in the second round on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. ET in Rustenburg. The victor will meet the winner of Uruguay-South Korea in the quarterfinals. In other words, one of those four upstart teams will reach the World Cup Final Four.
For Donovan, his last-minute goal allowed him to come full-circle after his poor performance at World Cup '06. At the news conference after the game, Donovan started choking up on the podium as he recalled his personal journey since then. "I've been through a lot in the last four years," he said, still wearing his blood-stained U.S. jersey. "I'm so glad it culminated in this way. It makes me believe in good from the world. And when you try to do things the right way, it's good to see you get rewarded."
Seated next to Donovan, coach Bob Bradley started choking up briefly as well when he talked about the U.S. fans who saluted the team bus as it rolled its way through Pretoria on the way to the stadium. "The street was lined with U.S. supporters waving flags, dressed up and chanting U-S-A and knocking on the bus," Bradley said. "We don't always have that. To have that happen in a World Cup in South Africa, I think I could speak on behalf of all the players, that was a really special feeling. To finish the night with a great win, to go hand-in-hand with the support we do have, that shows we're making big steps."
How big? I'd call it the second-most important U.S. victory ever after the second-round win over Mexico in the 2002 World Cup. But the U.S. scored early in that game and iced it late (with another Donovan goal). This game had far more tension and fear that the U.S. would be eliminated.
And by producing when it mattered most, the U.S. won a few more fans around the world -- and in its own country, too.
"I used to see this game we play as just a game," said Donovan, "and I think I've realized particularly during this tournament that it's more than that. It's an opportunity to inspire. And not only inspire other people but inspire yourself and your teammates. I think tonight is going to do a lot more for me and other people than maybe we'll realize."
"Landon has grown in so many different ways," Bradley said. "There's a special feeling on a team where people are really counting on you, where your character, your personality, is at the core of how the team does. Some players play their whole careers and never experience that."
Donovan has led this far. But a new 16-team tournament starts on Saturday. As captain Carlos Bocanegra said, "Now is where the fun starts."
This U.S. team is not perfect. It sometimes has lapses in defensive focus. It has a tendency to perform best only when it's in the most dire of situations. "The hope is that you continue to get better," Donovan said. "The first 15 minutes we didn't defend well, we didn't play very well. I thought offensively our movement was really good tonight and our creating of chances was good. Overall we want to continue to be a little bit better. We believe we can play with any team in this tournament."
It was over, wasn't it? But now, thanks to Donovan and another magical moment from this U.S. team, it is not. Their thrilling World Cup continues, and we happen to all be along for the ride.