PRETORIA, South Africa – The very picture of calm and cool under pressure finally let go.
The US were two minutes from getting sent home on Wednesday night, but Landon Donovan wasn’t about to let his World Cup end early again. His clutch goal in the first minute of stoppage-time gave the Americans a 1-0 victory over Algeria, and bedlam erupted by the corner flag as his jubilant team dog-piled him.
Once the celebration died down, the emotions finally got the best of Donovan in the postgame press conference.
“I’ve been through a lot in the last four years,” said a teary Donovan, who needed a few moments to compose himself. “I’m so glad it culminated this way and it makes me believe in good in the world – and when you try to do things the right way, it’s good to see them get rewarded.”
The US’ advancement to the Round of 16 undoubtedly will help Donovan put some of his demons to bed. He admitted that his low point of the past four years on the field was, not surprisingly, the Americans’ three-and-out performance at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, a failure Donovan has taken personally.
But it goes much deeper than that. The US star said his lowest point personally was “July of last year,” a reference to his painful split with ex-wife Bianca Kajlich.
“Those experiences can harden you and can help you grow if you learn from them,” he added. “I spent a lot of time and I did a lot of work to get something out of those experiences, and it all came together tonight.”
Donovan hasn’t just become the all-time leading scorer in US national team history over the past several years, he has become the face of American soccer and the most recognizable player arguably ever produced Stateside. He has stepped into the role of ambassador with aplomb and, to a large degree, as he goes, the US go.
At this World Cup, Donovan has been a man on a mission. He sacrificed his offensive gifts to help the US hold down a draw with England, then drove the team to rally from a 2-0 halftime deficit against Slovenia with an impressive strike just after halftime in that match. And now, after Wednesday night, he’s probably the biggest hero in this World Cup.
According to US head coach Bob Bradley, Donovan has grown by leaps and bounds with his varied experiences over the past three tournaments, and the obstacles he has faced along the way have helped him evolve into the leader he is today.
“I think these kind of challenges came at a good time for him, and he’s never shied away from challenges,” Bradley said. “To have the chance to come back in the prime of your career ... and you know people are really counting on you, your character, your personality is at the core of how that team does. Some players play their whole careers and never experience that.”
On Wednesday night, Donovan will go to sleep knowing that he did, almost literally, all he could do to keep his team alive in South Africa. And then on Thursday, he can start processing everything he has accomplished over the past two weeks and start looking ahead to the next challenge.
But for now, he can live off the emotions. What did he see when he realized Clint Dempsey’s rebound was there for the taking?
“I saw a lot of things,” he said. Would he care to elaborate? “Not yet,” he added with a grin.
Take your time, Landon. Enjoy the moment.
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