World Cup

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Donovan shines on grandest stage

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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PRETORIA, South Africa

As the big red number four was held up in the air after 90 minutes of frantic, exciting, relentless, but ultimately goal-less soccer, it became clear there would be four more minutes for the U.S. men’s national team to find a miracle.

The pressure and urgency might have made some other teams crumble, but for this American team, the same team that has made dramatic comebacks a habit, four minutes of stoppage time was more than enough time to make something happen.

USA-Algeria lessons

LESSONS LEARNED

The USA is into the knockout stage thanks to five valuable lessons learned against Algeria.

It was more than enough time for Tim Howard to deliver a perfect long throw to Landon Donovan. More than enough time for Donovan to find Jozy Altidore with a pass and keep running toward goal as a dream sequence unfolded before him. As Clint Dempsey took an Altidore pass and had his subsequent shot saved by Algerian goalkeeper Rais Bolhi, the ball fell in front of goal and in the path of Donovan.

The moment Donovan spent four years waiting for, really a lifetime waiting for, lay just six yards from goal and the U.S. career leader in goals scored the most important and most satisfying goal of his career. A goal that catapulted his team into the World Cup second round. A goal that has energized a nation of soccer fans.

“I used to see this game we play as just a game,” Donovan said. “I’ve realized, particularly during this tournament, that it’s more than that. It’s an opportunity to inspire. Not only inspire other people, but inspire yourself and your teammates, to be inspired. I think tonight is going to do a lot more for me and other people than maybe we realize.”

The goal, and the victory, helped the U.S. national team secure an emotional victory at a time when interest in American soccer is soaring, and this World Cup has captured the imagination of fans both new and old.

You could feel that buzz in Loftus Versfeld Stadium, where American fans matched the support of Algerian fans despite Algeria playing on its own continent and American fans having to travel so many miles. The U.S. team felt the support even before it reached the stadium on Wednesday, with Pretoria streets lined with American fans.

“It was sweet,” Michael Bradley said. “Here we are, in Pretoria, South Africa, sitting on the bus, taking the little streets back toward the stadium and it seemed like at every turn there was a bigger group of Americans and American flags. It was something special.

“Between the last game at Ellis Park, where we’re standing there hearing pretty much the whole stadium singing the national anthem, to driving in today and seeing all the support, it gives us a big boost.”

“There’s not many games we play where we have an advantage in the crowd, and we have that atmosphere inside the stadium and outside the stadium, and we felt it tonight,” Donovan said. “You could see after the game how many people were there and excited.

The night looked like it might doom the Americans to another disappointing final group. The United States created chances, but were thwarted in every possible way. Whether it was stellar goalkeeping from Algeria’s Rais Bohli, a questionable offside call that negated what looked to be a perfectly legitimate Clint Dempsey goal, or a Jozy Altidore miss from close range, the United States continued to stare at a zero on the scoreboard despite outplaying the Algerians.

The second half was a blur of attacks and counterattacks as the urgency felt by both sides began to force more chances to be taken. Algeria needed a minor miracle to advance and even as it pressed looking for the victory, the U.S. defense held firm. Jonathan Bornstein silenced critics with his best national team performance in recent memory, while Steve Cherundolo played his third consecutive good match at right back. Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit held things together in central defense, with Oguchi Onyewu left on the bench.

USA vs Algeria

USA! USA!

See snapshots from the United States' victory in Wednesday's World Cup clash with Algeria that gave the Americans a spot in the knockout round.

The defense held, but the goal continued to elude the United States, and when the fourth official raised that bright red four into the Pretoria sky, at least one American player noticed it.

“I usually don’t look at the fourth official, but tonight I saw him,” Donovan said. “I glanced over for a second and saw him standing there, and I saw the four minutes go up. The half seemed to fly by, but there was a kind of a sense that there was going to be at least one more good chance.

“We had done a great job of making chances all night. It was just a matter of whether we were going to score.”

The Americans did score. Just as they did to come back against England. Just as they did in battling from two goals down to tie Slovenia. The United States found a way to get the result it needed, and were rewarded when Donovan slotted home the game-winner, which helped the USA finish first in Group C, and helped set up a Round of 16 matchup on Saturday against Ghana in a rematch of the United States’ loss to Ghana in the 2006 World Cup.

Donovan mentioned that Ghana loss, and the disappointment of that defeat and his own poor performance, as the low point that served as the starting point of the path that ultimately led to his game-winning goal on Wednesday, some four years later. When asked to put the significance of his game winner into perspective, Donovan admitted that it would take some time before he really could appreciate the gravity of the moment.

“The real impact of all this probably won’t be felt for a little bit,” Donovan said. “I remember being disappointed that day in 2006, but the real disappointment set in a week or two after that.”

The disappointment of 2006 is a distant memory now, both for Donovan and his team and the U.S. national team fans here in South Africa and back home. The team’s goal of advancing has been reached, and now both Donovan and the team are ready to set new goals, beginning with its match against Ghana on Saturday.

“I said all along getting out of the group was our goal,” Donovan said. “It doesn’t mean we’re content with that, but I think we can all be proud of what we’ve accomplished, and now we’re going to regroup and go after it on Saturday.”

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer.

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