The South African sun shines brightly above Loftus Versfeld Stadium, radiating a summer heat almost unbearable to the 35,827 patrons in attendance, some of whom had gathered to watch the United States men’s national team end its losing streak in Pretoria. None had expected to witness a miracle.
Alas, frustration distinguishes the facial expressions of the Algerian men’s national team, which had attempted fewer shots on goal and committed more fouls and offside infractions than its opponent, the United States.
Against a defense which had conceded a mere goal in its previous two matches, the United States had been shooting particularly well, in one instance having its only goal within regulation time disallowed as a result of a controversial offside infraction. The right goalpost would deflect a second attempt by Clint Dempsey in the 57th minute. Benny Feilhaber, Edson Buddle and Jozy Altidore would continue attacking, strategically wearing down Raïs M’Bolhi, the Algerian goalkeeper, with their unremitting shots on goal.
Having performed rather unexceptionally in its previous matches against England and Slovenia, the United States had benefited from a shift in momentum, Tim Howard, its goalkeeper, having just seized a dangerous header by Rafik Saïfi.
The score remains 0-0.
Now, at the conclusion of the 90th minute, the patrons become uncharacteristically quiet, their silence almost deafening to the footballers laboring upon the pitch. Tension resonates throughout the stadium, surpassing the summer heat as the primary source of perspiration and fatigue amongst patrons and players alike. The English men’s national team leads Slovenia in Port Elizabeth. A draw with Algeria would relegate the United States to a 3rd place finish within its group and, thereby, result in its elimination from the World Cup, an occurrence that had become far too common.
Howard glances upward into the South African sun, imploring God—a lover of the game—to present an opportunity, to offer hope within a situation long characterized by its absence. His eyes find Landon Donovan at midfield, running across the pitch at full speed. He throws the outlet pass to Donovan, who subsequently secures control of the ball. The silence dissipates. The tension intensifies. The patrons clasp their hands together. Some bow their heads and close their eyes. Others deeply focus upon the movement of the ball caressed by Donovan’s feet.
Ian Darke adds to the emotion. “Landon Donovan! There are things on here for the USA! Can they do it here?” Donovan completes a forward pass to Altidore, who quickly cuts from his right side and secures control of the ball at the edge of the penalty box. Altidore immediately completes a cross to Dempsey, who—in his distracted attempt to score—tumbles over M’Bolhi, the goalkeeper, and loses possession of the ball. M’Bolhi endeavors to reclaim his stance, the ball only feet within his grasp and kissing the paint lining the boundaries of the goalie box. The patrons grow louder, well aware of the precarious situation within which Algeria has found itself.
Donovan had remained most dangerous on the run, exhibiting—upon the pitch—that he could escape his own circumstances and do right within a world that had repeatedly done him wrong. Consequently, Bob Bradley adapted his tactics to Donovan’s dexterity. The success of his team depended upon the success of its finest footballer, its all-time leading scorer.
So Donovan runs, closing in on the ball at the edge of the goalie box, metaphorically breaking free of the shackling circumstances which had long undermined his play, whether they were his personal assumption of responsibility for his team’s winless finish during the previous World Cup, his unsuccessful replacement as the captain of the Los Angeles Galaxy or his more recent separation from his wife.
He claims the rebound as his own, powerfully striking the ball into the upper left corner of the net. He continues running toward the left corner flag—his smile shining brighter than the South African sun—slides onto his stomach and is overtaken by the entire bench. Darke’s voice transcends the roars of the patrons. “Oh, can you believe this?! Go, go USA! Certainly through. Oh, it’s incredible! You could not write a script like this.” The vuvuzelas echo. The patrons kiss, hug and roar, their tears laminating their beaming faces. Donovan does right, securing a victory for his team, a 1st place finish within its group and an advancement to the Round of 16 for the first time since 1930 and only the fourth time in its history.
“There it is,” says Darke. “The moment.” Indeed, Donovan’s goal defined the moment American soccer became mainstream. It changed the game and the manner in which the game is viewed. Most importantly, however, it set him free—free to assume the role long denied to him by this world, the role he had only dreamed of as a six-year-old in Redlands, California.