IRENE, South Africa – The clock ticked into the 70th minute, and Tim Howard started to get anxious.
“I thought, ‘Damn, at this point, we’re going home,’ and I didn’t want to get on that long flight,” the American goalkeeper said.
Not to worry. The United States saves its best for the last 20 minutes.
Landon Donovan’s injury-time goal with the U.S. on the brink of elimination gave the Americans a 1-0 victory over Algeria, and now they’ll will meet Ghana on Saturday for a berth in the World Cup quarterfinals.
It’s just the latest instance of the United States striking late. Among the others:
• Against Slovenia in the second group-stage game, Michael Bradley scored in the 82nd minute to tie the game at 2-2, and the Americans’ now infamous disallowed goal followed in the 85th.
• In World Cup qualifying, Bradley’s 90th-minute goal finished a 2-0 win over Mexico; Jozy Altidore and Frankie Hejduk each scored in the last 15 minutes to gain a 2-2 tie at El Salvador; and, Jonathan Bornstein’s injury-time goal tied Costa Rica 2-2, knocking Los Ticos out of the World Cup and putting Honduras in.
• At the Confederations Cup last year in South Africa, Clint Dempsey’s 74th-minute goal capped the 2-0 upset of European champion Spain.
Donovan’s goal against Algeria was more dramatic than the others and seen by more people. But it’s part of this team’s DNA.
“I think that’s been the trait for the U.S. team for the last 10, 12 years,” captain Carlos Bocanegra said Thursday. “Guys get together and they work hard for each other and they fight for each other. The egos don’t get involved. Everybody wants to play their heart out for the next guy.”
So if the Americans are so effective at the end of games, why can’t they start off the same way? It puzzles the players as much as anyone.
“For whatever reason we seem to grow in strength and confidence as the game goes on,” Howard said. “The danger in that is the vulnerability at the beginning. But at the same time the longer we can go and keep at a zero – 20 minutes, 30 minutes, get to halftime – our chests start to come out, and so that’s a good thing. Now I’ve just got to figure out and make sure we don’t concede early.”
The U.S. has never won a World Cup match in which it trailed, and there are no more draws now that the Americans are heading to the knockout stage.
That, plus the Americans’ style, makes some of its strongest supporters nervous.
“I can’t deal with this anymore,” said former national team defender Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN analyst. “They’re killing me here.”
When the Americans were eliminated by Ghana in their 2006 first-round finale at Nuremberg, Germany, they fell behind twice. They couldn’t come back both times.
Haminu Draman stripped the ball from Claudio Reyna and beat Kasey Keller on a breakaway in the 22nd minute. After Dempsey tied it in the 43rd minute with a 10-yard volley off a cross from DaMarcus Beasley, German referee Markus Merk whistled 6-foot-4 Oguchi Onyewu for fouling 5-foot-8 Razak Pimpong while going for a header in the penalty area, and Ghana captain Stephen Appiah converted the penalty kick in first-half injury time. The 2-1 score stood up, and four years later American players still disagree with Merk’s call.
One big difference in Saturday’s game at Rustenburg will be the absence of Black Stars midfielder Michael Essien, sidelined by a knee injury.
Only once since the first World Cup in 1930 has the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals. The Americans beat Mexico, 2-0, in the second round eight years ago, then were eliminated with a 1-0 defeat to Germany.
Altidore said this U.S. team doesn’t get flustered if it falls behind.
“The mentality is we’re never out of the game,” he said. “Even in the 91st minute, Landon is clapping, getting guys together. Carlos is barking out directions.”
Still, Altidore does wish for matches with less-dramatic endings.
“We’ve definitely won a boring game” before, he said. “Actually, we would love to get back to that and win a very uneventful game. We get a goal in the 48th minute and we still have the win and we move on.”