DONOVAN RESCUES US TO WIN GROUP
The United States pulled off one of the gutsiest finishes in recent memory with a second half stoppage time winner from Landon Donovan to not only keep their World Cup hopes alive, but also finish Group C on top and set a Round of 16 date with Ghana.
Alongside Bloemfontein's Free State Stadium, site of last year's 2-0 win over Spain, Loftus Versfeld Stadium wrote itself into US soccer history after seeing two losses in last year's Confederations Cup.
After an hour and a half of relentless attack and countless misses, Bob Bradley's men shook off the prospect of elimination from the World Cup and instead got the goal they were looking for in injury time.
The American starting lineup saw a few unexpected changes with Carlos Bocanegra shifting over for Oguchi Onyewu at the centerback position, and Jonathan Bornstein getting the start at the right back. Also Herculez Gomez got his first start in the World Cup at striker for the suspended Robbie Findley.
The affair got off to an explosive start with several chances for both teams within the opening ten minutes. Algeria attacked within seconds after a long ball to Rafik Djebbour who headed back for Karim Matmour for a one-timer over the bar.
Donovan responded after controlling a loose ball and delivering a cross from the right side straight at the keeper.
Algeria's closest chance of the opening half came in the 8th minute when Djebbour smacked the crossbar. Catching up with a Madjid Bougherra long ball, the AEK Athens striker chested down and one-timed off the bar above Tim Howard's head and out of danger.
Gomez followed up that opportunity on the counterattack with a effort from the right corner of the area that Algerian keeper Rais Mbolhi fisted away.
The US continued to pressure after a Rafik Halliche foul on Jozy Altidore set up a 35 yard free kick. Clint Dempsey stepped up for the strike but aimed a few feet over the bar.
Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere reached in his pocket for the first time in the game in the 12th minute after Hassan Yebda tripped Altidore on the ensuing counter, and saw his second yellow of the tournament.
The tempo slowed as the squads settled into their rhythm and looked to take advantage of each other's mistakes. On several occasions, the US attacked down the right side through Steve Cherundolo and Donovan including a 17th minute effort when the Hannover 96 defender swung in a cross for Gomez in the box that unfortunately saw the Pachuca-bound man's strike sail over the bar.
The US then felt haunting memories of the Slovenia game in the 20th minute when a would-be goal was disallowed due to a questionable offside call.
After a scramble in the box involving Michael Bradley, the ball popped out to Gomez who blasted straight at the keeper from the right side. Gomez relayed the ball back in for Dempsey, who in line with the last defender, tapped home a potential go-ahead goal, however to the Fulham man's dismay, the linesman had his flagged raised.
The game settled into a dozen minutes of back and forth play in which both nations maintained possession but shut each other's attacks down.
The next best chance of the game came for the Americans in the 35th minute after Altidore spotted Donovan on the right with a cross-field pass. The LA Galaxy midfielder then found Dempsey darting through middle but the Nacogdoches, Texas native struck straight at Mbolhi.
Just two minutes later, Donovan continued to lead the attack with a one-two with Bradley in the box. Altidore was there in front of the net for the shot, but struck it over the bar.
Matmour tried to rally the Algerian attack back down the field, finding space down the middle for a 35 yard rocket that Howard deflected over the bar.
With a few minutes left in the first half, CDempsey and Karim Ziani exchanged 30 yard strikes for their respective teams, with the Fulham man's directed at the keeper, and the Wolfsburg forward's arcing wide right.
Belhadj closed out the half with a long ball for Djebbour in the box that just missed his bald head by a hair.
The first half closed with Algeria holding a slight edge in possession, while the US barely ahead in shots with their 12 to Algeria's 11.
Looking to spark the American offense, Bradley made one substitution bringing off Gomez and slotting in Benny Feilhaber at left midfield, sending Dempsey up top with Altidore.
Algeria should have taken the lead as the second half opened after Foued Kadir found Matmour ahead of the US backline, but the Borussia Mönchengladbach forward couldn't finish the job.
The Desert Foxes continued to threaten as Ziani tested Bornstein at right back, earning a corner for Belhadj. The Portsmouth defender spotted Halliche in the box but the Nacional Madeira man couldn't connect with the pass.
The US had to start wondering if fate was against them when they saw another close chance somehow go awry in the 57th minute. From the midfield, Bradley fed Altidore, who evaded his defender, darted down the left and delivered a cross that the Algerian defense botched.
Dempsey caught up to the ball and with space in front, pinged off the right post, followed up to the left, and only managed to launch the remnants into the stands.
Altidore received his first booking of the tournament in the 62nd minute, after which Coach Bradley looked to the bench once again, bringing in striker Edson Buddle for Maurice Edu, and shifting Dempsey back to the left midfield.
Feilhaber posed a threat in the 65th minute with a nice drive into the box on the right side but kicked straight at Mbolhi.
The Fennecs coach Rabah Saadane then made his first substitution of the match bringing on the potentially potent Abdelkader Ghezzal for Djebbour.
The frustration continued for the US after another great chance eluded Buddle in front of the net after a Cherundolo cross.
In spite of the miss, Buddle reflected after the match on his approach coming on with 25 minutes to go.
"You want to bring energy and get in front of goal," he noted. "I think energy brings opportunities. As long as you bring energy, the opportunities will come."
Wolverhampton's Adlane Guedioura became the second substitution at the 69 minute mark, filling in for Ziani in the midfield.
The 35,827 in attendance held their breath two minutes later when Bougherra's clearance of an Altidore cross flirted with the crossbar on its way out of bounds.
Hassan Yebda kept the Algerians' hopes alive in the 73rd minute with a blast from 25 yards out that again went over the bar.
At the 76 minute mark, Fennec captain Anther Yahia saw a yellow after stepping on Altidore's foot in the midfield. Donovan stepped up for the free kick, fed to Cherundolo for a delivery into the box that, although deflected off an Algerian's head, was ruled a goal kick.
Three minutes later a Guedioura foul on Dempsey set up a free kick from 25 yards, which Bradley blasted through the wall but straight at keeper.
With just ten minutes the go, the Americans looked for any offensive options. Bradley opted to bring on DaMarcus Beasley for Bornstein, resulting in a midfield of five and a backline of three.
Three minutes thereafter, a Yahia elbow caught Dempsey in the mouth, which required treatment on the sideline. After an Altidore drive through the midfield was tripped up by Medhi Lacen, drawing a yellow from De Bleeckere's pocket, the Fulham midfielder stepped up from being treated with a droplet of blood on his lip, stared down the 25 yarder, and delivered over the bar much to his chagrin.
With a minute to go in regulation, a long ball found Buddle at the touchline, but the Galaxy striker could only muster a light tap back for Altidore which was intercepted by the Algerian defense.
Just when it looked like the US had exhausted all of its creativity, the floodgates of the American offense opened as the team surged forward with Altidore on the right flank, who found Dempsey in the middle.
Facing the Algerian keeper, Dempsey's attempt rebounded out nicely for Donovan trailing behind to punch in the match-clinching and the group deciding goal.
"It's all about executing, making sure we do everything perfect," Altidore noted to YA after the game. "Landon played the ball across, then I played it across and Clint made a good run. It fell to Landon and he scored it in."
Dempsey added that he was trying to get some pace behind his shot and hope that something good would come of it.
"I couldn't chip it over the keeper, so I just tried to hit it under or hit it hard," said the Texan. "It bounced of Mbohli and went to Landon who put it away, so we're happy."
Of the play, Donovan explained the approach going into stoppage time with only a few minutes to make something happen.
"Sometimes in soccer you have games like that where you get a lot of chances and they don't go in," he mused. "The only thing you can control is if you keep going."
The Galaxy man also gave credit to the US defense for its job in keeping the Algerians at bay.
"We knew that they were pushing, and the guys in the back did an unbelievable job of stopping counter after counter from them and giving us a chance to score," added Donovan.
Another questionable referee decision closed out the game after an Algerian opportunity which was whistled dead. Fennec captain Yahia mistakenly received his second yellow and marching orders, standing in for Halliche, who had argued with the De Bleeckere after the disputed foul in the box.
The Americans were able to kill off the final moments of the match as the rest of the US squad flooded onto the field after De Bleeckere's final whistle.
With tears in his eyes following the dramatic win, the Man of the Match reflected on the hardships both he and his teammates have experienced since Germany 2006.
"I've been through a lot in the last four years." Donovan recalled. "I'm so glad it culminated this way. It makes me believe in good in the world. When you try to do things the right way, it good to see them get rewarded."
The US will make an unprecedented advance into the Round of 16 as Group winners, facing Ghana on Saturday in what will be a rematch of Ghana's 2-1 victory over the US in the group stage of the 2006 World Cup.
The contest will take place in all-too-familiar Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, site of the earlier draw with England.