Landon Donovan, USMNT midfielder 2000-2014: I’m thinking in my head like, “I just gotta cheat up the field as much as I can.”
It’s almost like [Tim Howard] had been surveying the field before he got the ball. In case he did get the ball, get his hands on the ball, he was ready. And so when he grabbed it, I knew there was a lot of space in front of me. So I took off in that moment, and he threw it perfectly.
At that moment, my thought was just make the right decision, because I’ve been in situations like that thousands of times in practice or in games. So I wanted to get the ball out in front of me, so we’re putting pressure on them quickly. And then when Jozy [Altidore] peeled out to the right, Edson [Buddle] peeled out to the left and Clint [Dempsey] was running centrally, and instinct kind of takes over at that point. Get it out to Jozy and I knew he was gonna put it in a good spot from there, and then it was crash the goal and put them under pressure.
There are not many forwards in the history of our country who would have run that hard to get across the goalie and put himself in position like Clint did. In the moment, I don’t think there’s any chance that the ball is going to end up anywhere other than in the back of the net, because once [Altidore] rolls it in front, I’m thinking through Clint or Edson or an own goal, somehow that ball’s gonna end up in the goal or at least close to the goal.
I was directly behind Clint, but I actually can’t even see the ball. And so their interaction happened and then [the ball] rolled out. I didn’t even know. I wasn’t thinking about timing my run, my momentum was carrying me into the box and then that’s where the ball ended up.
In the 91st minute of the United States’ World Cup group-stage finale against Algeria on June 23, 2010, in Pretoria, South Africa, Donovan pounced on that ball, scoring the goal that would send the Americans into the round of 16 after their 1-0 win and set off a cultural phenomenon, putting the U.S. men’s national team into the collective consciousness of the country like never before.
Ten years later, ESPN spoke to Donovan, his teammates, members of the media, fans, and those whose soccer careers were in part shaped by that moment. This is the story of that night in Pretoria, South Africa, the most historic moment in USMNT history.
Editor’s note: The text has been edited for length and clarity. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Noah Davis, Jason Davis, Arch Bell and Austin Lindberg contributed to this report.
The ghost foul
The U.S., arguably, should not have been in the position it found itself in against Algeria.
A welcome 1-1 draw against England in its opener positioned the Americans well to advance from the group. The Three Lions were widely expected to top Group C, and a point on the board, with encounters against Slovenia and Algeria to come, put Bob Bradley & Co. on course to reach the knockout rounds.
But a controversial 2-2 draw against Slovenia dampened that enthusiasm. A phantom foul called on Maurice Edu while he volleyed home a Donovan free kick cost the U.S. two points, and instead of heading into the group finale on top of the table and needing only a draw vs. Algeria to reach the round of 16, it now had to win.
Maurice Edu, USMNT midfielder 2007-2014: I’m still at a loss of words about how to describe what the hell went wrong during that play. I know I’m not fouling him because I’m ahead of him and now he’s trying to catch me. So I literally go through the box uncontested and Landon couldn’t have played a better ball, it hits me in stride, left foot, boom, goal. I’m not top 10 on SportsCenter, I’m No. 1! In the moment, I went back to being a kid, kicking a ball around the house, the commentary, “Mo gets the ball, it’s the last minute of the World Cup, he shoots, he scores!” So this was my moment, this was that moment.
I hear the whistle blow and I’m like, “What the hell?” Everyone is up in arms, protesting, going crazy, Clint, Landon. They were arguing with the referee, who had no answer for us then, had no answer for us after the game and to this day he probably has no answer. If that goal counts, that’s probably the greatest comeback in U.S. soccer history.
I look at it and think, “F—, that sucked, that was my moment, that was my goal, that was my place in history.” But you know what, it led to an incredible moment in the Algeria game and now you’ve seen what it’s made for.
Donovan: I saw it go in, but I didn’t know what happened. So at that moment, you just have to assume that something happened because I didn’t know any different. The only thing is the reaction of our players, looking around like, “Who are you calling that on?” Nobody can figure out who they are calling. And so I think it’s myself and Michael [Bradley], we go to the ref and I don’t think he only spoke French, but we were just trying to figure out like, “Can you just tell us what the call was and who you’re calling it on?” and he didn’t want anything to do with it. Maybe it was a language thing. It seemed like he made up his mind before the play that he was going to call a foul. I have known referees to do that if they feel that they got a previous call wrong. It just seemed like he had made up his mind. And you know, it wasn’t until later watching the replay that I realized that there was no foul, and actually if you’re going to call a foul, it should have been against a Slovenian player on a few of our guys.
Tim Howard, USMNT goalkeeper 2002-2017: The infamous shirt tug where everyone is like they’re in a WWE wrestling match. I don’t know what the referee saw. To be in with a shout of winning that game, and to show the perseverance and battle back said a lot about our team.
Bob Ley, ESPN 1979-2019: I was at that match, and I go back and I still look for that foul that took away [Edu’s] goal in much the same way that I look for how much Michael Ballack was offside in 2002. I still give him s—. “Ah Bob, you’re such an a–hole.”
Jonathan Bornstein, USMNT defender 2007-2011: We thought we got robbed. But, you know, very quickly, you’ve got to move on. It’s out of our hands now. Let’s focus on what we can control, and that was the next game. And so I think that’s kind of something Bob always instilled in us, that kind of, control what you can control and let go and don’t ponder on what happened in the past.
Alexi Lalas, ESPN 2009-2014: What people sometimes fail to realize is, we only had two points going into that third game. There was a real good chance we could have lost that game to Slovenia. But obviously, Michael scored, and we actually could have won it. But you had already seen a comeback-kid type of mentality that they had. But now you’re right back where we started in that you lose the game and we bomb out in the group stage. So from a drama and entertainment perspective, we were psyched to get this type of game and now we just needed them to perform.
Julie Foudy, ESPN 2006-present: I was at our ESPN studios in Johannesburg. You have hundreds of people in this room thinking, “Geez, we could be going home here.” And you obviously want the team to be successful, but you’re also thinking how much work has gone into a production like this and all the people that are over there, and you definitely want Team USA still in it, right? So, I think that’s always the interesting juxtaposition of, you are clearly so invested because it’s Team USA, but you’re also invested because you want the sport to grow and you realize, without USA in it, it’s a much different sell.
So the U.S. headed to Pretoria for its game against Algeria, needing a win to ensure its progression to the knockout rounds. The result of Slovenia vs. England, kicking off simultaneously in Port Elizabeth, would have a huge bearing on how the group would shake out, but the Americans controlled their destiny: win and they’re in.
Donovan: All you can ask for, for a team like ours, is going into the third game with a chance to advance, right? Like, when you go into the tournament, that’s your thought process. If you’re one of the top five or six teams in the world, you want to be qualified by the third game. But for us, we wanted to go into the third game with a chance to get through and we felt like we were playing the weakest opponent in our group, and they needed like some crazy results to happen. I think they didn’t really have a chance to advance so there was excitement, optimism, but we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. So I think we felt good heading into that game.
Howard: We had played in big games. We beat Spain at the Confederations Cup, best team in the world. We were up on Brazil in the final 2-0. OK, it didn’t go our way, but we had played in big games as a team. And so I think when it comes to World Cup, particularly if you’re with a U.S. team, all bets are off. So if you can put yourself in a position to go into that third game where your destiny is in your hands, that’s all the U.S. team could have asked for. Even if we had gotten a better result in the Slovenia game, we couldn’t just lose. It was all to play for and we felt confident we could do it.
Steve Cherundolo, USMNT defender 1999-2012: We still felt confident that we could make it out of the group, but I think we also felt the pressure was added on because people were expecting us to make it out of the group, and we felt the same. So we felt good, we felt confident, but we also knew that Algeria had some weapons as well and they were a good team. All the pressure was on us. We were no longer the underdogs, which is what normally we were.
Jurgen Klinsmann and Herculez Gomez look back on the USMNT’s 1-0 win over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.
DaMarcus Beasley, USMNT midfielder/defender 2001-2017: I know that everyone was more relaxed than what I thought the team would be. I wasn’t starting, so you kind of look around the locker room, see people’s mannerisms and their faces, and that’s one thing I do remember, is that the team didn’t seem rattled. Knowing that we needed to win, I think the team was confident in how we were playing throughout the tournament.
Bornstein: I remember the overall attitude of the team being very positive. We had previously played against teams like England, who we took a point from, we thought going into the Algeria game was a definite opportunity for us to prove something to the world.
The game began with Algeria coming out motivated, striking the crossbar in the early exchanges. But the U.S. recovered.
Dempsey had a goal controversially ruled out for offside, then hit the woodwork. Altidore missed a chance with the net gaping.
Herculez Gomez, USMNT forward 2007-2013: It was crazy because at first it was Algeria. One in hits the crossbar, we get saved. But then I was out supplying a lot of pressure. I had a shot at like 30 yards out that caught the keeper by surprise. I had another shot that I hit straight into the keeper that I should have done way better with. I had a cross shot that ended up on Clint’s foot that he scores and it’s a legitimate goal, that’s called offside. So I thought we were knocking.
Lalas: I was more impressed with Algeria than I was the other two teams in the group, to be quite honest with you. They were sons of b—-es. And I say that in a good way, they were badasses. I wasn’t prepared for how badass they were.
The missed chances begin to add up. As the count of wasted opportunities rises, the clock continues ticking away. Time is running out to get three points from the game, and with it, a place in the round of 16.
Jozy Altidore, USMNT forward 2007-present: I’ll never forget, there was a play where I think I’m in, and I go down the side and I cross the ball, and they sail it clear. Clint comes and opens his hips up to go far post, rings the post and it comes back, and I thought for sure he scores the rebound, and he put it over. It was a tough bounce, to be fair. It’s not an easy finish. At that point, I was thinking to myself, “Wow, is it going to happen? We may not get through.”
Beasley: It was, “Are we going to sneak one in like we usually do? Are we not? Is this going to be a game where we almost had it and we didn’t? And we lost it?” And we started thinking about, “Oh man, the game before, we should’ve won that game.” So you start thinking about what could’ve happened to not be in the situation that you’re in. If we would’ve scored that one goal [vs. Slovenia], we wouldn’t even be in this situation right now.
Gomez: I thought it was there for the taking. But as the game progressed, then this feeling of, “Oh man, this could be our last game” started settling in. And it’s a World Cup game, so everything’s magnified. Everybody’s on edge. It almost feels like these moments are bigger than they really are, because at the end, it’s just a game, right? Maybe nine out of 10 times you play that at a neutral site and we blow Algeria out, maybe. But in this game, it was close. They were in it. It could have been anybody’s game, any moment could’ve changed it. And it came down to the very end of the show.
Ian Darke, ESPN 2010-present: Did you honestly have a feeling that [the U.S.] were going to get that goal? Not really, not deep in your heart. And you’re thinking, “Well, this is quite a damp ending for the World Cup campaign,” because as the group stood going into the 91st minute, they were going out of the World Cup having played reasonably well and they could have gone out without losing a match.
Ley: [ESPN analyst Steve McManaman] and I were both mesmerized, and so I got up from behind the desk, and I am just walking around like my wife is in labor — in the old days, you’re not in the birthing room. I have never been so nervous in my life.
Donovan: There was this real professional understanding that in the last 10 or 15 minutes, the attacking players had to cheat and we had to roll the dice. Like, if we gave up a goal and lost 1-0 vs. tying 0-0, it didn’t matter, we’re out either way. So we had to take chances. And I think people don’t realize how stressful that is for a backline and Michael and Tim to deal with basically 5-on-5 at the back and 5-on-5 at the other end for 10 minutes or so. And they just held down the fort and allowed us to kind of get wave after wave and keep trying to break them down and find the goal to win it.
Altidore: When you’re down, you just have this sense of going until you reach the goal. Especially when you need a goal. That’s kind of where we were at. We were still just trying to get after it. We wouldn’t stop. We had time. We just kept going, we just tried to be relentless in our approach of trying to create that one more chance to win the game. Because I think up until that last seize of the ball, we believed. And I think that played a huge part.
And then it happened.
In the first minute of stoppage time, the U.S. conceded a golden opportunity, as Adlene Guedioura delivered a cross to the back post where two Algerian attackers were unmarked. Rafik Saifi got his head on the ball, but he could only direct it straight into Tim Howard’s hands.
The goalkeeper immediately pushed forward and threw the ball into the path of a sprinting Donovan, who was already at midfield. Donovan continued his run, playing the ball to Altidore wide right, who squared a cross for Dempsey, whose shot was courageously saved by Rais M’Bolhi. But, thankfully for the U.S., Donovan followed the play and buried the rebound.
Bornstein: I think you can take it back to their chance right before Tim catches the ball. It could have been a very dangerous opportunity. I mean, they get a cross in and the guy’s alone in the box and he gets a free header off. Luckily, it goes straight to Tim’s hands. I think all of us on the bench, you know, when you’re looking at them inside of our box and you’re thinking “No, no, no, just get it out, get it out.” Tim catches it and everyone kind of stands up because he immediately throws it just like a bomb, like a quarterback to a wide receiver. And leads him perfectly running full speed, [Donovan] takes a great touch forward. And we’re already inside their half within 30 milliseconds. I think everyone at that point, at least for me, we’re all like, “This is it.”
Howard: There had been a series of getting the ball, rolling it out, throw it out, getting us on the front foot and attacking. So that was kind of the mode I was in for much of that second half. And then Landon, as he does, it just seemed like that was a connection that I made 1,000 times. He opens up wide, he wants the ball, he gets on his horse and then me being able to find him in an open lane, it just kind of seemed second nature. So he was just flying and I felt in that perpetual motion stage. [Dempsey] was getting ready to get moving, everybody seemed to be flowing toward the goal.
Darke: I remember, and I’ve obviously seen it a few times since then, Howard having the ball and I remember I sort of injected an extra urgency into my voice at that point, thinking, “This is now or never, it’s got to all come from this.” And I remember Howard throwing a great throw almost at the halfway mark on the right to Donovan and suddenly the move was on. Suddenly that Algeria defense seemed to just maybe look a little bit disheveled and disorganized, maybe for the first time. And you just have a feeling something could happen here. And then it looked like the frustration was going to continue because Dempsey’s shot got blocked, and you thought, “Ah, that’s it.” But there was that moment, you saw it was dropping to Landon Donovan, and that he had a magnificent chance. The rest is history, as they say. Banged it in the net, and then the mass celebration by the corner flag and my somewhat hysterical commentary. I had no idea what I’d said at the time, but eventually I did get the impression that people quite liked it, which is always good for a commentator.
Altidore: Landon would always tell me, “When I get it, just take off running.” So I just took off when I saw him taking off, we all took off when we saw the opportunity. It was a good throw by Timmy. They caught us. We’re cheating a little bit to try to stay in a good spot, to stay forward, you don’t want to break down. And it just worked out to be the perfect counter, the perfect play where we caught them. And then, actually, when I look back at it, Landon’s on for me to give it back to him. If I disguise it well enough, I can cross it back to him and he can also tap it in. And it’s crazy, but I was not paying attention to that. I just saw Clint arriving, and I saw he was open, and there was a window. And when Clint missed that, I was thinking, “No, another big chance!” And then Landon was there at the doorstep, following the play, staying with it, and then the rest is history, as they say.
Foudy: And the thing about Landon’s goal too, which is so iconic to Landon, is one, he starts it with that counter. And then you see he shows himself to Jozy, so he kind of holds, but he doesn’t stay there. A player without that ability to see what’s being done, I’d have been like, “OK, he didn’t use me, I’m good.” He gets in a position where he knows he’s going to get some type of deflection. And, in the 91st minute, to sprint — which he did, pretty much three quarters of the length of that field — and then to carry that run through so he’s in a position to make it look easy, that was everything of what Landon was about. And people miss that, they just see him at that end position. There’s so many people who wouldn’t have gotten to that position. I’d have still been at the mid-strut, “Yeah, I’m good.”
Howard: Credit to both Landon and Clint. They’re always smelling it, they’re always on the front foot. Landon doesn’t just play the ball and stop, and think, “This is going to be in the back of the net.” He continues his run.
Altidore: Landon was doing his Landon thing, man. Popping up in the right place at the right time.