With a dramatic 1-0 victory over Algeria in its final World Cup Group C match, the U.S. soccer team qualified for the second round at football's premier event in South Africa. The team achieved some historic milestones.
How quickly the looks of concern on the faces of U.S. fans changed in the dying moments of the game against Algeria. Most of them knew that England led Slovenia, 1-0, in the other Group C match being played at the same hour in Port Elizabeth. That meant if the Americans finished in a scoreless tie with Algeria - and the match in Pretoria seemed certain to end that way - the U.S. team would be headed home after the first round.
There was still a glimmer of hope when the stadium announcer said there would be an additional four minutes of stoppage, or injury, time added to the regulation 90 minutes. The drama unfolded in the 91st minute on a U.S. counterattack.
From just inside the right area of Algeria's 16 meter box, forward Jozy Altidore sent a crossing pass to midfielder Clint Dempsey whose shot went right at Algeria's goalkeeper before he crashed into him. The ball rolled back out just beyond the goal box where charging midfielder Landon Donovan booted it in the left side of the goal.
It sent the American players and fans alike into a short, wild celebration, which resumed a few minutes later after the final whistle blew, signaling a 1-0 U.S. victory. The American players stayed on the field longer than normal to acknowledge their fans throughout the stadium, fans that had purchased more tickets for this World Cup than any other nation besides host South Africa.
The 28-year-old Donovan, who is the U.S. soccer team's all-time leading scorer and playing in his third World Cup, described his emotions after scoring the goal to get the win. "The moment itself was as much joy as I've felt in a soccer game. And eventually when the tournament is over - hopefully July 12th - we will look back and realize just how historic it was. Given everything, given what it meant, the timing of it, how dramatic it was - unfortunately we probably could have made it a little easier - all those things and what it meant for our team made it the most special in my career," he said.
Never before had a U.S. team won its third and final match in World Cup group play. Other than the inaugural World Cup in 1930, when only two group matches were played, it is the first time an American team has finished unbeaten in the first round and won its group.
It was achieved with draws against England and Slovenia and the win over Algeria. The Americans edged England out for first place in Group C on total goals scored.
A number of things had gone against the U.S. team at this World Cup, so it would not have been a complete shock had the Algerian game ended in a scoreless draw.
Last week against Slovenia the referee disallowed a U.S. goal for no apparent reason that likely cost a victory. A linesman disallowed another U.S. goal against Algeria for offsides that appeared to be incorrect. And U.S. forward Robbie Findley was charged with a handball that led to a one-game suspension when video replays showed the ball hit his face and grazed his shoulder.
The way this U.S. soccer team has battled against adversity at this World Cup in South Africa has won them a lot of fans back in the United States. Goalie Tim Howard said the amazing late-game win over Algeria to keep the Americans in the tournament has made it extra special.
"I think the way the game ended and how intense it was I think that plays to the American sports fan. You know, if had we won the game 4-0 I don't think it would be nearly as exciting for the people back home. They seem to have really taken an interest, a love in this team, you know kind of embrace us as their own," he said.
Donovan said he has been overwhelmed by the response. "I think almost every person on my contact list on my (cell) phone has texted me or e-mailed me or called. And it makes you realize how much people love this team and how proud people are of our team. And I compare it to when I watch the Olympics and someone in a sport does well. Even if I don't know the sport I'm proud. And from what I understand back home people are going absolutely crazy, and we hope to make them even prouder on Saturday,'' he said.
In the second round, which is the beginning of the knockout stage when no match can end in a tie, the United States will play Ghana. Ghana beat the Americans in the final game of group play at the last World Cup in Germany to knock them out of the tournament.
Ghana lost its final group match at this World Cup to Germany in Johannesburg Wednesday night, 1-0, to finish second behind the Germans in Group D. The Ghanaians and Americans have short turnarounds, with only two days of preparation before they meet Saturday night in Rustenburg. Germany will play England in the second round on Sunday in Bloemfontein.