Editor’s Note: In light of Landon Donovan playing his last match as a US international tomorrow, we asked our writers and other great soccer voices to share their favorite Landon moments with us. It seems fitting that one of the best soccer people we know wrote about the goal of Landon’s life. Friend of TYAC Zack Goldman (@thatdamnyank twitter) on THAT Landon goal.
You already know the story — but I’ll tell it anyway.
The United States is deadlocked at zeroes against Algeria in their final group stage match of the 2010 World Cup.
They are playing in Pretoria, South Africa, the Jacaranda City, called such for the sticky, violet treetops that mark the capital’s parks and avenues, making roads equal parts messy and beautiful for feet and cars to cruise.
“Messy and beautiful” … that’s just about what the World Cup adventure had been to this point.
It was an odyssey defined, in part, by poor early-game marking and a brand of mostly safe, reactive, staccato soccer from the Stars and Stripes that wasn’t always the most pleasant on the eye.
Equally, though, it was a study of survival worthy of all of those buzzwords that we apply to great American sports teams. It was spirited. It was industrious. It was a story of grit and pluck and togetherness.
But, through 270 minutes, it was, ultimately, doomed to be written as a story of failure — a narrative football historians almost unanimously, and often unthinkingly, blanket over teams who fail at the first World Cup hurdle.
The States had already gone toe-to-toe with England, coming within a goalpost (or another Rob Green howler) of taking down the Three Lions yet again, 60 years after their first World Cup meeting.
They had outlasted Slovenia, rebounding from an early 2-0 deficit in Jo’burg to claim a 2-2 draw, that was, for moments, a 3-2 win, before Maurice Edu’s volley was chalked off for… well… we’re still not sure.
And, they had played Algeria off the park, surviving a crossbar-rattling scare in the opening moments to create chance after chance after chance, including a wrongly-disallowed goal.
But, it didn’t matter now. With the last grains in the hourglass steadily, maddeningly passing through to the other side, the Americans needed a goal to keep their dream alive.
And, eventually, in the 91st minute, they got it.
In truth, the goal against Algeria was a brilliant team move.
No, sorry, it was a perfect team move.
It goes something like this: Tim Howard saves a header and immediately launches the attack with a superlative, heat-seeking throw that catches Landon Donovan in stride. That term “in stride” is often used with a significant amount of “wiggle room,” as it’s known scientifically, but, in this case, it’s meant to its fullest degree. The ball literally homes in on Donovan’s boot with unimaginable accuracy — an angle of intersection achieved without either entity, ball or foot, losing any velocity in the process.
From here, Donovan glides across the green, carrying the ball into the attacking third and playing Jozy Altidore into space in the Algerian box.
Altidore adjusts his body seamlessly to meet the ball and plays a first-time pass to Clint Dempsey at the near post, who attempts to side-foot a shot past Algerian goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi, who years later will find himself in a funny American town called “Philly,” where they eat large sandwiches called “cheesesteaks” and worship a boxer who never existed. But, at this point, he doesn’t know any of that.
At this point, M’Bolhi only knows about Dempsey’s shot, which he’s gotten down well to block, but cannot hold onto, and as though some poetic force has moved these elements into place, we now have the following messy, but beautiful situation: Dempsey and defender Madjid Boughera have both been felled by M’Bolhi’s sliding save and find parts of themselves splayed over the goal-line — but the ball is not.
It is also, however, not in M’bolhi’s hands.
Instead, the ball — our dear friend Jabulani — is resting on a grassy plinth, seven-and-a-half yards from goal, laying unclaimed by foot or glove.
M’Bolhi is in no-man’s-land, halfway between his goal and the object of his desire…
And rushing toward the ball is Landon Donovan.
That Landon Donovan, whom the American sports media had blamed for not adequately stepping up in the dying moments of the previous World Cup…
That Landon Donovan, who had endured a tumultuous 18 months in the run-up to this tournament, personally and professionally, separating from his wife, Bianca, and enduring a third failed stint abroad in the eyes of his critics after not making the grade at Bayern Munich…
That Landon Donovan, who now had a chance to put the USA atop a World Cup group for the first time ever with one pass into a gaping net.
…He, of course, made that pass.
It’s a goal that is, on a level of construction, much bigger that Donovan — relying upon a million tiny things to break right for the United States.
And, yet, on a level of character and significance, this goal only belongs to one man.
After slamming the ball into the net, wheeling away toward the corner flag, and sliding headfirst into jubilant teammates and soccer history, a wet-eyed Donovan told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap: “People who know me closest know how hard I’ve worked for this moment.”
He continued, talking about his team, “We embody what Americans are about. We can moan about it or we can get on with it, and we kept going.”
That night, in the 91st minute, the United States got on with it, and kept going, and that’s why they won the match.
But, for years, Landon Donovan had got on with it, and kept going, pushing through the unfair hot takes, the unwarranted criticism, the skepticism lobbed at professional athletes who had the gall to question their own fulfillment — and not won a lot of what he deserved.
On this night, however — at this moment — he had finally been justly rewarded.
His journey, like the jacarandas, had been both messy and beautiful, and this goal embodies the poignant relationship between those two adjectives in our lives — how our success is often born of our adversity, how our happiness is forged by trial, how our brightest moments only gleam how they do because of our periods of darkness that led to them.
It isn’t difficult to assume that the United States will one day produce a more talented field player than Landon Donovan; however, it is almost impossible for me to imagine one being more beloved, wise, humble, and capable of teaching us so much about ourselves during his moment in the sun, as he did that night in Pretoria.
Zack Goldman is a friend of The Yanks Are Coming we’re happy to have contribute from time to time. Young and Oxford educated, he’d be a tremendous asset for any soccer club front office in the United States.Follow him on twitter (linked above).