In the wake of one of the more humbling experiences in recent United States Men’s National Team history, we almost let the anniversary of one of the most thrilling moments in American soccer slip by us. Six years ago today, Landon Donovan scored THAT goal against Algeria, and for the very first time it felt like an entire nation lost its collective mind about soccer. Maybe there were other moments before, but nothing to this degree. Leaving whatever house or bar you were at watching that match you could see that gleeful sparkle in everybody’s eyes. That won’t quit grin. That’s the good stuff. That’s soccer bliss and you know it when you see it.
Let’s re-stage the moment and put it back in context. This was the USA’s third and final group match and they were on the brink of being eliminated after drawing their first two matches with England and Slovenia. Algeria had stunned England earlier in the tournament by holding them to a scoreless draw and in doing so created a pile up in the group standings. Here are the standings going into that day:
England simply needed to beat Slovenia to qualify. Slovenia needed either to win or draw and hope that the US drew or lost. Algeria could still feasibly advance if they beat the USA, and if Slovenia and England drew. There was only one scenario where the US could go through with a draw and that was if Slovenia beat England. The Americans couldn't afford to bank on that though. They needed to win.
Let’s fast forward a bit. It’s now late in the second half of the match. England took an early lead against Slovenia through Jermain Defoe and held a 1-0 lead. The USA and Algeria were still level at 0-0 through a sheer force of defensive will from the Algerians and maddeningly bad luck from the Americans. Dempsey struck the post. Dempsey missed an open net. Dempsey had a goal ruled out for offside. Altidore sent a volley wide of an open net. The chances kept coming and the Algerians kept denying them. 90 minutes of regulation time ticked away in what felt like mere seconds and the USA still didn’t have the goal that they needed to advance. Three minutes of added time was all that stood between a place in the next round and humiliating elimination in the group stage. You all remember what happened next right?
There’s so much about this play that’s amazing. There’s Tim Howard’s incredible outlet throw that hits a galloping Landon Donovan in step. Donovan takes a daringly heavy first touch and accelerates beautifully to meet it. Algerian defenders are scrambling. They’ve been sitting back absorbing pressure for nearly the entire match, but they’ve got a lot of men upfield at this moment, having just created one of their few offensive chances. Dempsey has matched Donovan’s pace and he wants the ball right away. Donovan, not liking the angle opts to hit it in space for Altidore who has been running ahead of him and to his right this entire time. Dempsey reads the play, puts his head down and somehow finds another gear. Jozy’s pass to him is good, but Rais M’Bolhi (who has been nearly unbeatable this tournament) is positioned well. He reads Altidore’s pass and dives at Dempsey’s feet cutting off any angle the American striker might have had. He makes the save, and takes the feet out from under not only Dempsey but his own defender as well. The shot is stopped but the ball isn’t gathered. It tumbles away from the Algerian Keeper. Watching this highlight today, I was surprised by how little time actually passed between M’Bolhi’s save and Landon’s shot. In my memories that ball rebounded of M’bolhi and sat there for an eternity. At least a long enough time to ponder the futility of life and the sadness of failure. But in reality M’Bolhi had no chance to react to Donovan who comes flying from off camera and it’s just the simplest of finishes for him to pass into a mostly empty net. Ian Darke is screaming. My friends are screaming, the neighborhood erupts. The USA is through to the next round and anything is possible. Sports are great sometimes.
I've probably watched that video 2000 times. I also watched that viral "The World Reacts to Landon Donovan's Goal" video several hundred times. Just hearing the opening bars of that song from Rudy gives me goosebumps now. I had a suspicion soccer was catching on the United States, but this was the moment that really hammered home for me that it wasn't going to be a passing fad for the hipper than thou denizens of Irish pubs. We were part of the game now.
When discussing the goal with some of the staff, it seemed that everybody had a vivid memory of the moment. It’s one of those memories that immediately gets banked for US soccer fans. You know where you were when Landon scored.
So I asked a few of them to share:
I was on my way to Louisiana. My wife to be had just celebrated her birthday and we were on our way to celebrate at a Lake Charles casino. Before we drove across state lines we watched the USA v Algeria match. For 90 minutes, this seemed like a bad decision.
The United States was looking at its third straight draw in the 2010 World Cup group stage and their stay in South Africa was about to end abruptly. Through 90 minutes, the Algerians held firm, a 0-0 draw and the Americans being eliminated looked inevitable. Until it looked worse. Algeria had a clear chance to win it right around 90 minutes but it ended in an easy Tim Howard save. I remember nearly falling out of my chair at this. This 2 hour drive I was about to make was going to be a long one. We couldn’t even get of our seemingly easy group. Then Howard found Landon Donovan on a long thrown outlet…
Donovan begin to motor up field. Could we really rescue this late? Donovan found Jozy Altidore and all of a sudden I got up from the couch. Clint Dempsey was played through. I think I may have jumped as Dempsey’s shot seemed a given to find the back of the net. Rais M’Bolhi made the save and a sweeping despair swept through me. But that’s a fairly juicy rebound he just gave up. Wait, who is that following the play? DONOVAN SCORED! LANDON DONOVAN SCORED! At this point, I clearly remember sprinting around my house. The dog was nearly taken out. As I finished my lap back to the couch I lept over it. Mid-air, I regretted that dive. Luckily, a nice rug broke the fall of my swan dive and the United States was in to the Round of 16 at the World Cup.
The 2010 World Cup was my first real exposure to soccer…period. My mornings consisted of preparing for work with ESPN’s SportsCenter rambling on and on as ambient noise. Due to Africa’s geographical positioning, live coverage meant watching soccer in the mornings instead. I found myself showing up late to work on a regular basis that month. Special attention was placed on USMNT games when I learned they were in the tournament (I distinctly remember Robert Green’s howler).
When it came to watching the United States play their third match against Algeria, I reserved the office conference room in order to watch on the giant screen. Most of the office peeked in from time to time to see the score. I was alone with minutes to go, watching the back-and-forth with both teams trying desperately to advance, when Howard’s throw to Donovan finally appeared on screen with Altidore, Dempsey, and Buddle peeling away from the defense.
Next thing I remember, I was cheering loudly with fists in the air and surrounded by bewildered coworkers wondering why I was so loud. I had no idea how the sport worked at the time, but I knew how I felt in that moment. I realized on that day, I was hooked; I had rarely seen such drama like it in any sport, and the prolonged feeling of anxiousness kept my adrenaline pumping for minutes rather than fleeting seconds like in other sports. Soccer has become a major part of me and what defines me, and that moment in particular started it all.
Of course there’s the memory of the goal, being in a bar early in the morning, celebrating like crazy with a ton of people. But, the memory of that goal for me is actually entwined with the memory of what led up to me being where I was when it happened. Now, watching soccer in a bar isn’t that big of a deal, but six years ago it wasn’t as common as it is now. Also, I was 18, so it was even a bigger deal for me. I had to be snuck into the bar by some of my older friends. We knew one of the bartenders at this Irish pub, so as long as I promised to be on my best behavior and not pull any funny business, they let me in. I remember having to come up with a good excuse for why I wasn’t at work that morning, while also not tipping my hand. My boss knew I was a huge soccer fan, so it was a bit tricky. Thankfully (???) I had hurt my back a few days prior, so I had a pretty good cop out line. After all, it’s pretty difficult to install cabinets with a bad back.
I don’t remember most of the game, but I do remember the tension leading up to the goal. Howard makes the save, and there’s a collective sigh of relief. Then he throws it out to Landon and I stood up. When Dempsey missed the initial attempt, I remember turning around if frustration, only to see on one of the other TVs that Landon was there for the rebound. Pandemonium. Caught up in the wave of sheer ecstasy, I ended up on of a table, I think. I don’t remember much after that.
(Ed, if you’re reading this, I’m very sorry for lying to you. But it was so worth it.)