I don’t remember exactly what my lead said before Landon Donovan rewrote it.
I know it was something depressing. Something like, “After entering the 2010 World Cup with so much hope and promise, the US national team’s tournament has ended the exact way its 2006 run did: three and out.”
I recall sitting there in the press tribune at Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, pondering what went wrong and why the US couldn’t escape a group that most considered among the easiest in the tournament that summer.
I remember thinking it was the Slovenia game that did them in – that they shouldn’t have had to rely on a win against the unheralded Algerians to advance.
I remember thinking that this just wasn’t their day. That despite a handful of good chances, their luck had finally run out. My lead was written, and my time in South Africa was over.
We all know what happened next. Scoreless tie, first minute of stoppage time. Tim Howard deflects Rafik Saïfi’s header to his feet, lets the ball bounce in front of him before grabbing it and hurling it up the right side to a streaking Donovan.
The all-time leading scorer in USMNT history leads the frantic counterattack at full speed, slipping the ball through to Jozy Altidore, who centers it for Clint Dempsey. But Dempsey’s shot is smothered by Algeria ’keeper Raïs M’Bolhi, who goes horizontal on the ground to stop it.
But he can’t prevent the rebound from popping out.
Donovan scores the most iconic goal in US men’s national team history, and slides headfirst to the corner flag, where everyone from the bench players to the technical staff dog-pile him.
USA 1, Algeria 0. The Americans don’t just go through, they win the group.
“Most of us attacking guys were just cheating up the field because it was like, well, if we lose now, it doesn’t matter,” Donovan reminisced to MLSsoccer.com this past March. “So we had all four of our defenders and Michael [Bradley] doing all the nasty work of defending and battling for 20 minutes so we could just take wave after wave of attack, and if we lost it, then we’d come back down.
“Those guys made it possible for us to have that chance. And then, when it finally broke through, it was such a glorious moment.”
It became The Moment. Donovan’s goal was seen by 8.6 million viewers back home in the USA, and it was immortalized further in the now-famous YouTube compilation of public reaction to the goal, which now has more than 4.5 million hits.
It made the USMNT mainstream. And it’s a big reason why there is unprecedented attention heading into the 2014 World Cup.
Michael Jordan has The Shot. Dwight Clark has The Catch. John Elway has The Drive. Olympic hockey has The Miracle on Ice.
There’s no such nickname for Donovan’s iconic goal. Not yet anyway. But in some strange way, the events of the past few weeks have immortalized that moment even further.
It’s still hard to believe Donovan isn’t going to his fourth World Cup. It’s still impossible to envision a US team competing yet again at this level, but without the man who has been its heart and soul for the past 12 years.
We all figured he’d have one last chance to add to his epic story arc. Whether or not he started in Brazil, we all just assumed Donovan would find some way to make a difference, and to keep writing his own fantastic legacy.
But it’s not going to happen. It’s like the series has been canceled before the last installment can even be shot.
I, however, don’t look back at The Goal and think about what should have been this summer. I instead remember what Donovan represents, and I smile when I recall that moment.
Because no matter what, the lead he made me rewrite that day will be true forever:
“Landon Donovan, you are now officially an American legend.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.
USA GREATEST WORLD CUP MOMENTS
No. 10: Despite red cards, USMNT stun Italy (2006)
No. 9: Brazil gives USMNT the blueprint (1994)
No. 7: With goal in Detroit, Eric Wynalda proves USA belongs (1994)
No. 6: Angry Michael Bradley encapsulates USMNT comeback (2010)
No. 5: The handball that cost the US a World Cup semifinal (2002)
No. 4: Yanks shock Portugal and the world (2002)
No. 3: The legacy of the bittersweet win against Colombia (1994)