As we wait with increasingly dwindling patience for the U.S. women to get their shit together, I thought we could all do with some happy America fuzzy-memory time. June 23, 2010, five years ago today, Landon Donovan’s World Cup stoppage-time goal saved the USMNT from elimination, won them the group, and proved America’s dominance over the world—or at least over 11 Algerian dudes. Let’s bask in it!
We were giddy enough after Robert Green’s boner allowed the U.S. to draw with England in their opening match. This, after the front page of The Sun had crowed about England’s “easy” World Cup group. (One of our tabloids responded with a classic front page of its own.) After such a disappointing 2006, it looked like the U.S. had a smooth path to the knockout rounds, but a draw with Slovenia and England’s early lead in their third match meant the U.S. would need to find the net against a tough Algeria side.
For 91 minutes, nothing. Then Landon Donovan, looking as fit as he had all match, took Clint Dempsey’s outlet up the right side. He led Jozy Altidore just inside the box, who crossed on to Clint Dempsey for a touch that was stuffed by the keeper. But the ball squirted free, right to the trailing Donovan.
I remember three things very vividly. I remember Donovan, arms wide like an airplane, sprinting to the corner flag before he was tackled and piled under by his teammates. And I remember Ian Darke’s “Go, go, U.S.A.!” call. In retrospect, it was a startlingly homer call—the sort of thing I’d despise if it weren’t in support of the team I was rooting for. But in the moment, the fist-pump of a call was exactly in tune with my own reaction, and its endurance in our collective consciousness is proof that it was the right sentiment for the right audience.
Four years later, Darke would say that triumph wasn’t precisely the emotion at hand, but rather something closer to deliverance. “I think all wound up in that [Donovan goal] was what a moment of relief it was that they weren’t out of the World Cup.”
A split second of relief, and then: joy. The third thing I remember about Donovan’s goal is the 24 hours after, the swapping stories with people about where they were when they saw it and how they reacted. The videos started showing up online. One person put a bunch together and set it to music from Rudy. Just try to watch this and not swell up:
Donovan’s goal is in competition with Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick for the biggest moment in American soccer history. But unlike that 1999 World Cup win, Donovan’s goal wasn’t a culmination but something of a beginning. We were supposed to beat Algeria. We were supposed to go through. 2010 was the first time American fans weren’t equivocating about their chances of being a legitimate player in the soccer world. No more “if things break our way, if we steal a point off a much better team.” The USMNT was finally, legitimately capable of mattering, if it could only take care of its own business.
That’s what it felt like again, four years later in Brazil. The U.S. survived one of the tougher groups, advancing over capable sides Portugal and Ghana, and it wasn’t an enormous upset. The seeds of American soccer’s rise were planted way back, of course, but since 2010 we enter World Cups expecting to advance. That’s a remarkable progression, even just across the careers of some of our veteran players. It’ll take decades before the U.S. has a hope of competing with the world’s very best, but it does seem inevitable. And if we ever win a World Cup, even if it’s not within our lifetimes, they’ll still remember Landon Donovan’s goal.