The United States has always had somewhat of a tough go of things in World Cup play. Frankly, soccer is not really an American sport, and it is usually dominated by European and/or South American teams. In 2010, the U.S. had kind of an up and down performance leading up to the World Cup. Although the team ultimately qualified to play, there were times they looked pretty good and others where their age and lack of top end soccer skills showed.
In the first round (Group play) of the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. was in a group with Algeria, Slovenia, and England. Their first game was against England, and although England was clearly the better team, thanks to a lapse in concentration and mistake by England's goalie, the U.S. managed to escape with a 1-1 draw, earning the team 1 point in group play. In their next game against Slovenia, the U.S. went down 2-0 and looked to be on the way out, but they staged a furious second half two goal rally to tie the game. In the last couple of minutes of the Slovenia game, the U.S. was completely robbed by the referee on a terrible offsides call that disallowed what would have been the tying goal. Therefore, they settled for a 2-2 tie, earning one more point for the team in group play. This set up a win or go home scenario in their final game against Algeria. If they won and England won by less than 2 goals, they would win the group, be the top seed from the group in the 2nd round, and have a much easier schedule to play. If they won and England won by 2 goals or more, they would be second place and the second seed from their group, meaning they would have to play an almost impossible schedule of difficult teams to advance.
This soccer game is truly one of the few sporting events where anyone who watched it will remember what they were doing and where they were when they watched it. I happened to be home to watch the game because some repair people were coming to the house, and for a while, it looked like the U.S. would continue its run of World Cup failure. As the game dragged on, the U.S. missed chance after chance to score, hitting the crossbar and the post a couple of times and getting robbed of yet another goal by an awful offsides call by the referee. When the 90th minute came and went, 3 minutes of injury time were announced, and there was little hope in any U.S. fans that victory would come.
Algeria had the first scoring chance in injury time, but U.S. goalie Tim Howard made a good stop, got up quickly, and made a great throw down the right side of the field to start off one of the most famous plays in U.S. soccer history. The throw came to Landon Donovan on the right side, who made a great pass to Jozy Altidore deep in the Algeria side of the field. I thought to myself as the play began that we might have something going, but I didn't want to get my hopes up to be crushed by another failure. Altidore then made a great cross pass to Clint Dempsey, but his shot was blocked by a great sliding tackle from Algeria's goalie. In the next 10 seconds or so, here was the reaction of me and millions of other U.S. soccer fans: 1.) NOOOO!!!! (on the block and tackle by Algeria's goalie); 2.) Hey wait a minute... (as the ball popped out free about 8 yards from the goal with no one around it...no one except U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan); 3.) YEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!! Followed up by me running around the house screaming like a madman (after Donovan, cool as a cucumber, knocked home the rebound into the back of the net).
I'm not old enough to remember the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey team's Miracle on Ice, and I won't compare the two because this game didn't have the significance of the Miracle on Ice (symbolically helping to begin toppling communist Russia), but this game meant a lot to me and millions of other Americans. If there is any doubt about that, check the internet for the unbridled glee and celebrations that erupted in thousands of bars across America when Donovan's shot found the back of the net. I am privilege to have watched this game live, and even if the U.S. doesn't win another game, I think their World Cup trip was worthwhile.
UPDATE: Even though they won their group and had the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the World Cup, the advancing age, tired legs, and missed scoring chances I mentioned earlier finally caught up to the U.S. in the knockout round as they lost a tough game to Ghana 2-1. Inexplicably, the U.S. coach started a defenseman who had not played in the World Cup at all and who isn't even that good on his MLS team. Sure enough, after a defensive blunder, Ghana took advantage of the blunder and bad positioning by U.S. goalie Tim Howard to go up 1-0. Landon Donovan tied the game on a penalty kick in the second half, and no one else scored in regulation, leading to a 1-1 tie headed into 30 minutes of extra time. 3 minutes into the extra time, the young, fresh legs of Ghana (average team age: 24) made a great play and scored in the 93rd minute. The U.S. could not score, and Ghana won 2-1, eliminating the U.S.