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Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Donovan proves he's the best

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

PRETORIA, South Africa -- In 2006, Landon Donovan was blamed for the United States' World Cup failure. Four years later, he became a legend, leading the Americans to one of their greatest-ever successes.

Donovan's goal 45 seconds into stoppage time did more than just give the U.S. a 1-0 World Cup win over Algeria. With England prevailing in its match against Slovenia, Donovan's tally sent the Americans from the agony of early elimination to the delirium of advancing to the knockout stages atop Group C.

In the process Donovan was able to slay plenty of demons, both professional and personal. He has had to live with immense criticism over the years that he has underachieved in his career. The breakup of his marriage to actress Bianca Kajlich in July was another painful obstacle to overcome. Combine that with the magnitude of the goal, and what it meant for the nascent U.S. soccer program, and Donovan was barely able to speak at times in the postgame news conference.

"I've been through a lot in the last four years," Donovan said as his voice cracked with emotion. "I'm so glad it culminated this way. When you try to do things the right way, it's good to get rewarded."

As so often happens in matches like this, Donovan's joy came ever so close to being despair. In a wide-open contest that was more track meet than soccer match, the Americans created enough clear chances to win the game several times over. Jozy Altidore ballooned a glorious opportunity over the bar in the first half. Clint Dempsey had a goal disallowed for what looked to be a phantom offside call in the 21st minute, then hit the post 12 minutes into the second half.

Algeria goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi stopped almost everything else the U.S. threw at him. He delivered several sharp saves in the first half, denying the Americans from a variety of ranges and angles. He continued his heroics in the second half, stopping Edson Buddle's close-range header.

And in the run-up to Donovan's goal, M'Bolhi looked to have stymied the U.S. again. Goalkeeper Tim Howard started the game-winning sequence with a pinpoint long throw that released Donovan into space. Donovan played Altidore down the right wing. His centering feed found Dempsey, only for his shot to be denied by M'Bolhi from point-blank range.

But Donovan was quickest to react and slotted home the rebound, sending U.S. players and fans alike into rapture.

"I gave the ball to Jozy, and I didn't run too hard because I thought he might cut it back to me," Donovan said. "But I just carried my momentum through, and when it hit the goalie, initially I thought it was going to hit him and he was going to keep it. But the ball rolled out to me and from there it was just instinct."

Captain Carlos Bocanegra added, "It was so emotional. I looked over at the sideline ref to make sure he didn't call it back. I didn't even know who scored it until after the game to be honest. I just felt so much pride. I couldn't even really think. I had tears in my eyes. … It was amazing."

Given the team's ability to come from behind in its first two group stage games, it has every reason to feel confident.

"I think the thing that really can push [the game] one way or the other is mentality, the fighting spirit and just the pure commitment from every guy not to give up," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "You just keep going and keep running. … I think it's pushed us on the good side of that line quite a few times now."

Of course, there were other heroes besides Donovan. Bradley was everywhere, getting into the attack as well as breaking up plenty of plays on the defensive end.

But of even greater importance was the performance the U.S. received from its heretofore shaky defense. In a bit of a gamble by manager Bob Bradley, Oguchi Onyewu was benched in favor of left back Jonathan Bornstein, with Bocanegra slotting into the center of the defense alongside Jay DeMerit.

With the game not yet six minutes old, the defensive unit looked none the better for the changes. DeMerit misplayed a through ball that allowed Rafik Djebbour a clear sight of goal, only for the Algerian to rattle the crossbar with a fierce volley.

But the U.S. soon settled into the match at both ends of the field, with all four members of the back line acquitting themselves well. Although Algeria did threaten on occasion, aside from a shot from Karim Matmour that Howard parried away in the 38th minute, the U.S. keeper wasn't that busy on the night.

"I think we've been getting better throughout," Bocanegra said. "I thought we did well to keep the [midfield and defensive] lines a little bit tighter tonight. They didn't have too many chances. … We'll take this momentum and go into the next game."

Now the U.S. men find themselves in the second round, with Donovan surging in front of the pack as the best player this country has ever produced. Not that it was all sweetness and light for Donovan on this night. The halftime whistle appeared to put the brakes on what up to that point had been an energetic performance. But Donovan was able to do what's expected of all great players, deliver the killer play in a pivotal match, helping him complete a remarkable turnaround from four years ago.

"It's night and day. I remember being disappointed that day in 2006, but then the real disappointment set in a week or two after that," Donovan said. "I said all along getting out of the group was our goal. It doesn't mean we're content with that, but I think we can be proud of what we accomplished and now we're going to go for it again on Saturday."

The great ones are also self-critical to the point of obsession, and Michael Bradley related that Donovan couldn't even spare himself on this occasion.

"He said something along the lines of 'I should have done something better to celebrate,'" Bradley said. "I told him, 'On this team, the best celebration is, run towards the corner and let everyone else meet you there.' To share a moment like that with your teammates, that's the best feeling."

Chances are it's one that will linger for a while.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.