I will never forget our bus ride to the Loftus Versfeld, the Pretoria stadium where we’d play our win-or-go-home match against Algeria. All along the route, American fans stood on the road, waving and cheering. By the time Loftus came into view, the bus had to roll to a stop. A sea of supporters stretched out in all directions. Some wrapped themselves in American flags, others had painted stars and stripes on their faces, and everyone rocked the national colors—red, white, and blue. They held up scarves like one might see at a Premier League match except these said LAND OF THE FREE. They held up signs proclaiming ONE NATION. ONE TEAM, and DIVERSE. HUNGRY. UNITED. AMERICA. Fans were rapping on the windows screaming “USA!” They also held up our bus—not that anyone minded. We were so far from home, and yet all these fans made us feel like were home. “Holy crap,” said Carlos. “This is awesome.”
The game was scoreless for 90 minutes. A draw wouldn’t be good enough for us; to advance we had to win. At a certain point, tactics went out the window. Defensive principles? Gone. The notion that a soccer game might be a chess match? Forget about it. With the clock ticking down and the prospect of our World Cup ending, there was no time for rhyme or reason. If we had a strategy, it was this: throw everything we have at them and hope they break.
We attacked with three strikers and a midfield that marauded forward with only one thing on its mind: putting the ball in the back of their net. Algeria massed as many as nine players in front of their goal. Still we had chance after chance. We hit the post. We had a goal called back for offsides. We did everything but score. I watched on full alert, thinking, All we need is one play, one moment of inspiration where we catch them on their heels. And then, a minute into stoppage time, it arrived.
Algeria’s Rafik Saïfi had a clear header at goal but it was weak and straight at me. The ball bounced and I caught it. I had to move fast. There was no time to survey the field and pick out a safe outlet. There wasn’t time to even look up. I had to operate on instinct. My instincts were formed on the fields of New Jersey with my goalkeeping coach Tim “Mulch” Mulqueen hammering certain lessons into my brain. When the ball comes in from the left, look to the right. A split second after catching that ball, I knew—I just knew—that Landon would be tearing down the right flank. And because the game had been stretched wide open in those final frantic minutes, all those players abandoning their positions in their desperation to score, I also knew there’d be acres of green grass in front of him. So I hurled that ball as far as I could to where Landon would be by the time it landed. It came to rest at his feet, like Mulch always insisted it would.
Landon set off toward the Algeria goal, 10 yards, 20 yards, 30 yards, chewing up the space as he searched for an open teammate. He pushed the ball ahead to Jozy, who picked out Clint across the box. I thought Clint would finish it but at the exact moment that he reached Jozy’s pass, the Algerian goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi threw himself bravely at Dempsey’s feet. The ball ricocheted off their keeper and away from goal. For a moment, it looked to most of the world like we were going home.
But my eyes were on Landon. He was still running, accelerating as he moved closer to the ball. I’m not even sure the Algerian defenders knew he was there. That’s the thing about Landon. He doesn’t broadcast his presence like some of the flashier players. He glides in, cool-as-you-like, and no matter how high the stakes, no matter how pressurized the situation is, he does what Landon always does—executes the finish with flawless precision.
There were 92 minutes on the clock. The ball had traveled from goal line to goal line in a few historic seconds before Landon buried it in the back of their net.
Landon raced toward the corner flag. He stretched out his arms and dove, bodysurfing along the grass. Benny Feilhaber slid behind him. Then everyone got in on it. All the guys on the field. All the guys on the bench. The coaches. The staff. Everyone. They ran toward Landon and threw themselves on top of him, one after another. Jozy flew onto the pileup like he was Superman. Jay DeMerit finished it off with a rolling somersault over the whole delirious gang. I watched the jubilation from the far end of the field. I kneeled down and touched the grass, five precise touches. I stood. I kissed my goalkeeper’s gloves, and raised my arms toward the sky.
“Thank you,” I said, looking up. “Thank you.”