02-19-2017  8:04 pm      •     

PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) -- This moment might be celebrated for decades.
Once again, the United States was minutes from World Cup elimination.
Once again, soccer's fleeting moment in America had come and was about to go.
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And then, in a way that usually only happens in movies, Landon Donovan stormed up the field in breathtaking dash, determined to make sure this chance would not be lost.
He passed the ball ahead to Jozy Altidore, who squared it to Clint Dempsey. His shot bounced off the goalkeeper and rebounded to Donovan. Instinctively, he slammed the ball into the goal.
Noise started coming from every direction at old Loftus Versfeld. Donovan spun, his jaw dropped and his face filled with wide-eye glee. He sprinted to the corner flag, sliding headfirst as if he were Pete Rose, and teammates piled on one after another, with Michael Bradley somersaulting onto the top, like a human cherry on the celebration cake.
Thousands of red-white-and-blue clad fans who had traveled halfway around the world will talk about this for the rest of their lives. Donovan won't forget this night for the remainder of the his days, this 1-0 victory over Algeria on Wednesday night that vaulted the United States into the knockout phase of the World Cup and set off an explosion of joy in every corner of the country back home.
The significance of his goal, of this victory, cannot be overstated for a developing soccer nation still yearning to prove it belongs. Former President Bill Clinton went to the locker room to congratulate the players after yet another in a series of late goals by a team known for final-minutes drama.
"It's the biggest win we've ever had for so many reasons," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. "One is obviously the fashion in which it happened. Second is the overcoming of adversity - not just today but given what happened the last game. And three, most of the country was tuned into the game."
One could quibble with him only a little. The 1950 World Cup upset of England may have been more unexpected. The 2002 victory over Mexico might have been more significant, given it put the U.S. into the World Cup quarterfinals.
But no U.S. soccer win was ever more clutch.
"This team embodies what the American spirit is about," Donovan said. "We had a goal disallowed the other night, We had another good goal disallowed tonight. But we just keep going. And I think that's what people admire so much about Americans. And I'm damn proud."
His goal came 45 seconds into 4 minutes of stoppage time, when a 0-0 tie would have sent the U.S. home. Instead, the American won their World Cup group for the first time since the initial tournament in 1930, and they'll play Ghana on Saturday for a berth in the quarterfinals.
Thirty minutes after the final whistle, Donovan was in the stands under the interview room, and still he could not speak without choking up. His faced drained of color, his eyes filled with tears and his voice quavering, the almost always composed Donovan was overcome.
As a 20-year-old in 2002, Donovan scored two World Cup goals and became a star. But expectations became crushing in 2006, went he went scoreless.
With his fourth World Cup goal, Donovan tied Bert Patenaude (1930) as the American leader.
"I've been through a lot in the last four years," Donovan said with tears in his eyes. "And I'm so glad it culminated this way. It makes me believe in good in the world. When you try to do things the right way, that's good to see them get rewarded."
By winning the group, the Americans set up a favorable path forward. If they beat Ghana in a rematch of the first-round game that knocked them out four years ago, they would face Uruguay or South Korea for a berth in the semifinals, a round the U.S. hasn't reached in 80 years.
The United States and England both were 1-0-2 but the Americans finished first because they outscored the English 4-2. Because England finished second, it will face three-time champion Germany in the second round.
When Donovan scored his U.S. record 44th international goal and gave the U.S. its first World Cup win in eight years, raucous cheers erupted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and even in White House auditoriums in Washington, D.C., according to e-mails sent to Gulati.
"That's probably going to capture more people's attention than if we won the game 3-0 and it was easy," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "That emotion, that passion is what American sports fans thrive on."
Before the goal, there had been mounting frustration. After Algeria's Rafik Djebbour hit the crossbar with a 25-yard shot in the sixth minute, the U.S. began to dominate.
Dempsey, who needed four stitches to close a cut on his lip, appeared to score in the 21st minute off the rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot. But the goal was called offside and was disallowed, just as Maurice Edu was denied what appeared to be a go-ahead goal Friday's 2-2 tie against Slovenia.
Dempsey's 12-yard shot off Altidore's cross clanked off the far post in the 57th minute, and when the rebound came back to Dempsey, he put the follow shot wide to the near side.
"You shake it out of your head and keep on fighting," Dempsey said.
Howard started the counterattack that led to the goal when he knocked down Rafik Saifi's 6-yard header and rolled the ball to Donovan on the right flank. Donovan caught up to the ball at midfield, took three touches and passed ahead to Altidore just inside the 18-yard box.
"Landon kind of knows me a little bit," Howard said. "He breaks out when I get the ball and it's kind of easy to find him."
Altidore's right-footed cross was flicked by Dempsey as he crashed into goalkeeper Rais Bolhi.
"I couldn't chip it over the keeper, so I just tried to hit it under him - hit it hard," Dempsey said.
As Dempsey tumbled over the goalkeeper, the ball rolled back out. In ran Donovan, who with a right side-footed shot from 7 yards sent the ball into the lower left corner. It was the first injury-time goal that lifted a nation into the knockout phase since Uruguay's Daniel Fonseca scored against South Korea in 1990, according to STATS LLC.
"We're not done yet," Donovan said. "We believe, man. We're alive, baby."

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