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US 1, Algeria 0

Persistence pays off for US

Donovan’s goal is extra special

With Algeria keeper Rais Mbohli down and out, Landon Donovan celebrates his Group C-winning goal in Pretoria. With Algeria keeper Rais Mbohli down and out, Landon Donovan celebrates his Group C-winning goal in Pretoria. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
By Jeré Longman
New York Times / June 24, 2010

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PRETORIA — The United States had chance after frantic chance yesterday in its 1-0 victory over Algeria at the World Cup, each one more tempting and frustrating than the other. Finally, desperation seemed to tighten like a noose, strangling the Americans’ patience and accuracy.

One early shot went into the net, only to be nullified by an offside call. Other balls went wide or high. Another deflected off the goalpost. Players held up their arms in exasperation and put their hands to their faces.

Ninety minutes came and went and still no score. A tie would not do. It would send the US home in a netherworld of failure, without a loss but also without a win. At one point, coach Bob Bradley seemed to curse into his hands.

“You just say maybe it’s not our night,’’ he said later.

But there is a spirit about this American team, a resilience that compels it to play on, a belief that unyielding commitment will bring a deserved reward even at times when skill and technique may not.

It happened yesterday one minute into extra time, as midfielder Landon Donovan, the team’s best player, delivered in its most imperative moment, starting a counterattack, then stabbing a rebound into the net for a victory that was the most dramatic and important ever by the US soccer team.

Until that moment, the Americans (1-0-2) were headed home under the World Cup tie-breaker system. Instead, the US won Group C, advancing to the second round Saturday, when it will play Ghana. England, which finished second in the group, will play Germany Sunday.

A team that had a goal and a seeming victory disallowed in a 2-2 draw with Slovenia because of a disputed and unexplained foul call, that had another apparent goal wiped out yesterday by an offside call that seemed an overreaction, prevailed finally because it would not allow itself to consider any other outcome.

“In soccer, you can’t always control a call or a bounce, but you can control what you are about as a team, how committed you are to giving everything in a game,’’ Bradley said. “I think that has become the special quality of this group.’’

There have been other important American triumphs — over England in the 1950 World Cup; over Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the first for the US in 40 years; over Spain, then the world’s No. 1 team, at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. But yesterday’s victory moved immediately to the top of the list.

“It’s the biggest win we’ve ever had for so many reasons,’’ said Sunil Gulati, US Soccer Federation president. “One is obviously the fashion in which it happened. Second is the overcoming of adversity, not just today, but given what happened in the last game. And three, most of the country was tuned in to the game.’’

For Donovan, the goal extended a tournament of redemption for a player whose success had been tempered by professional and personal disappointment.

An emerging young star, Donovan played with blithe exuberance at the 2002 World Cup as the US reached the quarterfinals. In 2006, he was expected to be a leader, but he found the expectation burdensome, playing poorly as the Americans exited in the first round. He has said he felt worn down, saying to himself at one point: “Why am I doing this? This is just too much.’’

In July 2009, Donovan separated from his wife, the actress Bianca Kajlich. The dissolved marriage, therapy, and discussions with family and friends forced him to look at himself “in an honest way’’ — not always one that he liked, Donovan said recently.

He has seemed invigorated and renewed at this World Cup, scoring a defiant goal and providing an assist against Slovenia, then delivering the winning moment against Algeria. At a news conference, he wiped tears from his eyes.

“Those experiences can harden you and can help you grow if you learn from them,’’ Donovan, 28, said. “I spent a lot of time and work to get something out of those experiences. I think it all kind of came together tonight.’’

His timing was both exquisite and nerve-racking.

While the Americans remained tied, 0-0, with Algeria through 90 minutes, England was defeating Slovenia, 1-0. The Americans had to prevail, too, or they would depart prematurely and dissatisfied for the second consecutive World Cup.

Bradley searched urgently in the second half for the right combination to unlock Algeria’s defense: three forwards, then two strikers upfront and a third withdrawn.

Then, a minute into extra time, goalkeeper Tim Howard repelled a shot by Algeria’s Rafik Saifi and hurled the ball up the field to Donovan on the right flank. Donovan dribbled up and pushed the ball ahead to Jozy Altidore, hesitating for a moment to see whether Altidore would take a shot, cross the ball, or pull it back to him.

As Donovan looked on, Altidore sent the ball into the penalty area for Clint Dempsey, whose afternoon had been one of opportunity and toil and frustration.

He seemed to score in the 21st minute, tapping in a shot while even with Algeria’s final defender, but the referee’s assistant ruled him offside. In the 57th minute, Dempsey hit the right post, then hastily pounced on the rebound, sending it wildly wide. In the 82d minute he was hit in the mouth. He went to the sideline, bloodied, in need of stitches.

Minutes later, Dempsey charged toward another collision, this one with Algeria goalkeeper Rais Mbohli, who had been brilliant. Dempsey got a foot on Altidore’s pass, then tumbled over the keeper and the ball popped free, 7 yards from goal.

Donovan accelerated as everything around him seemed to slow down, he said later, and he punched the ball into an empty net. Finally, the Americans had a necessary lead. Donovan ran to the corner flag and slid on his belly, and his teammates piled on in celebration. When the game finally ended, Donovan pumped his arms and kicked the ball into the stands.

Victory had delivered a souvenir.

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