You could put a list of the most significant goals in modern U.S. World Cup history on a postage stamp.
Which is why midfielder Landon Donovan’s extra-time shot that beat Algeria, 1-0, yesterday packed as much drama as it did relief.
Think Carlton Fisk in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. Maybe Michael Jordan against Cleveland and Craig Ehlo in Game 5 of the 1989 NBA Playoffs.
Except that, well, this is U.S. soccer and in 80 years of hit and – mostly – miss Cup history, there has been no M.J. Hardly a Fisk, either. Does Bert Patenaude ring a bell?
After seemingly having as many goals disallowed as scored in this World Cup, the U.S. was marked for expulsion and beyond desperate for one that counted.
Apparently headed for its third draw of this Cup, the U. S. was fit to be, uh, tied, not to mention hungry for something – and somebody – to take over the match and capture imaginations.
And, Donovan’s decider, a quick-thinking tap to the back of the net, one minute into extra time, was all that. And plenty more, yanking the U.S. from the brink of the kind of deja vu disappointment suffered in 2006.
In the blur of time it took goalkeeper Tim Howard to blunt an Algerian shot, Donovan to purposefully drive the ball upfield on a rightside counterattack and slap in a rebound off a teammate’s foot, the 28-year-old Donovan became the triumphant face of homegrown soccer in ways we’ve never had.
Donovan became the leader we’d hoped to see and a personification of determination and resilience, picking up from where Claudio Reyna and Brian McBride left off.
With his own redemptive leap from 2006, Donovan advanced the U.S. into the round of 16, setting up a rematch Saturday with Ghana, the opponent that eliminated the U.S. in the last World Cup.
Historically, it provided the country’s first group victory since 1930. Basically, the U.S. contends for a Cup title about as often as Haley’s Comet makes an appearance.
All you need to know is that Babe Ruth dominated the national sporting landscape the last time this country saw a Cup final four, which could be part of what kept Patenaude, hero of the ’30 World Cup third place finish, off Wheaties boxes in the 1930s.
So, yes, the U.S. was on rarefied ground as its members jubilantly piled high atop one another on the turf in Pretoria, South Africa, yesterday. Only twice in its previous seven Cup appearances, encompassing 76 well-spaced years, has the U.S. even gotten out of group play.
Until yesterday the most celebrated U.S. goal had been Joe Gaetjens’ so-called "miracle on grass" that beat highly regarded England, 1-0, in 1950. Not even that was enough to get the U.S. out of round one, however.
What Donovan and his team delivered yesterday was less a "miracle" and more a gritty vision of what U.S. soccer can be on the world’s biggest stage.
Especially when it has a gallant figure to lead them.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org