PRETORIA, South Africa – Over and over, everything seemed to go against them.
A referee took away a win last week, and a linesman disallowed another goal Wednesday.
Now there was just 31/2 minutes remaining in their World Cup, just that much time until all the doubts about American soccer would rise again.
But then, in one of the most stunning turnarounds in World Cup history, Landon Donovan scored on a counterattack 45 seconds into the 4-minute injury time period as the United States beat Algeria, 1-0, to reach the World Cup’s second round.
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“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.”
Former President Bill Clinton lingered in the locker room for 45 minutes after the game to congratulate the players. When Donovan scored, 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 U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
“That’s probably going to capture more people’s attention than if we won the game 3-0 and it was easy,” American goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “That emotion, that passion is what American sports fans thrive on.”
The United States won its first World Cup match in eight years and finished atop its first-round group for the first time since the original World Cup in 1930. A quick turnaround will have the Americans playing Ghana on Saturday in Rustenburg (11:30 a.m. PDT) for a spot in the quarterfinals.
“We’re not done yet,” Donovan said. “We believe, man. We’re alive, baby.”
Ghana won the final match of the opening round against the Americans to knock them out of the tournament in Germany four years ago.
Clint Dempsey appeared to score in the 21st minute off the rebound of Herculez Gomez’s shot. But the goal was wiped out by an offside call.
Dempsey’s 12-yard shot off Jozy 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.
The U.S., knowing England was ahead of Slovenia at the half, put in offensive substitutes, first Benny Feilhaber at the start of the second half, then Edson Buddle in the 64th and finally DaMarcus Beasley in the 81st.
“The second half wasn’t a soccer game — it was more like … a track meet. Back and forth, back and forth, both teams are so desperate,” Howard said.
Howard started the counter-attack that led to the goal when he knocked down an Algerian shot and threw the ball to Donovan on the right flank. Donovan moved upfield 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.
As Dempsey tumbled over the goalkeeper, the ball rolled out. In ran Donovan, who with a right-footed shot from 7 yards, slammed 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.
“The moment kind of slowed down for me. It was as much a reaction as anything,” Donovan said.
After his U.S.-record 44th international goal, Donovan joyously ran to the corner flag, sliding headfirst in a belly flop, and his teammates ran down the touchline to mob him.
“A lot of kisses. A little uncomfortable,” Donovan said. “It’s something I’ll have imbedded in my mind forever.”
The United States topped Group C with five points.
England (1-0-2) also had five points but finished second because the U.S. scored four goals to two for England.
In six of the final 10 qualifiers, the Americans gave up the first goals — but they bounced back to win three of those games and tie two others.
“That was a really special feeling,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “These guys put a lot into it, they never quit.
“We’re proud. We finished first in our group. Five points, didn’t lose a match. So we’re ready.”