PRETORIA, South Africa -- It was all over, wasn't it? The scoreboard at Loftus Versfeld stadium read
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.
Standing in his goal,
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.
And Belgian referee
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
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
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
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.