By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; D01
PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- The U.S. World Cup campaign was coming to an unbearable end Wednesday, with 90-plus minutes of maddening soccer failing to yield the goal needed to secure passage to the next round.
One shot had kissed the right post, another streaked past an open net and many more were foiled by Algeria's unshakable goalkeeper. A dubious officiating call had, for the second consecutive match, erased an apparent goal.
The other Group C match, unfolding simultaneously 761 miles away, was not breaking in the Americans' favor either, and with each squandered opportunity in South Africa's capital city, the outlook grew bleaker. A tie would do them no good.
"There are times," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley admitted later, "that you just say maybe it's not our night."
Twelve seconds made it their night, 12 seconds to move the ball from one end of Loftus Versfeld Stadium to the other and provide one of the most extraordinary and dramatic endings in the national team's 94-year history.
The astounding finish left the U.S. team (1-0-2) atop its group for the first time in the modern era and set up a round-of-16 match against Ghana, the Group D runner-up with a 1-1-1 record, Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT) in the northern city of Rustenburg.
The United States and England, a 1-0 winner over Slovenia in Port Elizabeth, finished with the same record, but the Americans had a superior goal total (4-2) in round-robin play. The star-filled English squad, which entered the tournament as the group favorite and a serious contender to win its first title in 44 years, will face longtime nemesis Germany on Sunday.
Wednesday's outcome added another gripping chapter to the 2010 U.S. story. In the opener, the Americans benefited from a goalkeeping blunder and used a courageous defensive effort in the second half to tie England, 1-1. Six days later against Slovenia, they erased a two-goal halftime deficit and had an apparent go-ahead goal in the 85th minute nullified by an unexplained foul call.
And against Algeria, after failing to capitalize on abundant opportunities and surviving a couple of scares, the Americans traversed the length of the field to score at the beginning of the four minutes added to regulation time (compensation for injuries and other delays).
Tim Howard saved Rafik Saifi's header and tossed an outlet pass to Donovan in stride at midfield. Donovan accelerated into the open field before touching the ball to Jozy Altidore on the right side of the penalty area.
Altidore drove a cross toward Clint Dempsey, who met the ball at almost the same time as charging goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi.
"I couldn't chip it over the keeper, so I just tried to hit it under him, hit it hard," Dempsey said.
M'Bolhi got in the way, deflecting the ball away from the net but into the path of Donovan, who coolly one-timed a low shot into the left corner, touching off a mass celebration in the corner and hysterical reaction among the thousands of U.S. supporters in the crowd.
"I didn't know if [Altidore] was going to play it across the goal or cut it back to me," said Donovan, the program's career scoring leader with 44 goals in 126 matches. "Once he played it in front of the goal, I kept my run going. When it popped off the goalie, I picked up [my pace] a little."
The goal ended a day of frustration. After Algeria's Rafik Djebbour hit the crossbar with a 12-yard volley, Dempsey's apparent goal was waved off by an offside call that, according to TV replays, should not have been made.
Late in the half, Altidore failed to finish from six yards after Donovan had drawn M'Bolhi off his line.
"I was waiting for a little sitter like that the whole tournament," he said. "You look at games and you say, 'How do guys miss that?' And then you are in that position and know how it feels."
At halftime, the U.S. players were told that England was leading Slovenia. A tie in that game would have benefited the Americans, but "we knew we needed to win to go through and we weren't going to wait on anybody else to do it for us," Dempsey said.
Early in the second half, Altidore stormed the left side before crossing to the top of the box. An off-balance Algerian defender touched the ball into the path of Dempsey, who surged to the penalty spot before driving a shot off the inside of the right post.
Dempsey collected the rebound on the left side but, with the near corner open, struck the ball poorly. In the 68th minute, M'Bolhi made a sensational point-blank save on reserve Edson Buddle's header.
With the Americans pushed forward and yielding space in the back, Algeria's Karim Ziani found himself alone against Howard but missed wide.
England was on its way to victory in Port Elizabeth, leaving the group's final slot up for grabs. Time was winding down on the U.S. hopes before Donovan, who underachieved at the 2006 World Cup, scored a goal that will be remembered for years to come in American soccer circles.
"We've had a lot of emotional games," captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "Now is the fun stuff. It's a one-off game and we get to go for it."