PRETORIA, South Africa - Long after the game had ended and the jubilant players had left the field, the U.S. fans partied on in the stands, singing, dancing and waving their American flags. Back home, folks who couldn't pick Landon Donovan out of a lineup only a few weeks ago celebrated his goal with die-hard gusto.
For decades now, soccer enthusiasts have insisted it was only a matter of time before the game grabbed hold of the United States as it has the rest of the world.
That time is here.
U.S. sports fans love winners, and the Americans are moving on to the second round of the World Cup as the top team in their group - ahead, even, of mighty England. But it's the way this team is playing, every match an adrenaline-fueled, heart-in-your-throat, can't-look-away-for-a-second dance on the edge that is captivating the country. And changing the game in the United States.
"Anybody that watched today's game and can't get excited about it, we're not going to win them over," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "But I think we won a lot of people over today."
Soccer has been on a slow, steady climb for years now, and its growth is inevitable with all those kids who've been packing their local parks each weekend. But to become a major player in the U.S. sports scene, to generate the kind of interest the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball do, soccer needs some kind of watershed moment.
South Africa is it.
The wall-to-wall TV coverage on ABC and ESPN - unprecedented in the United States - helps. So, too, does having a team filled with friendly, likable, humble guys. (Note to France: This is how a national team should act, not that dribbling soap opera you sent to South Africa.) The first World Cup in Africa holds a certain appeal, too.
One of America's biggest complaints about soccer is that it lacks action, that it doesn't have the high-scoring drama of our other sports. You can play 90 minutes and see only a goal or two. Or, worse, a 0-0 tie.
The United States scored a grand total of one goal in the victory over Algeria on Wednesday, yet I challenge you to find any game, in any sport, more exciting or nerve-racking.
"It was like a track meet," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "Back and forth."
The Americans knew they had to win or they were going home, and they played with a uniquely American scrappiness. They banged balls off the posts and sent the Algerian goalkeeper diving to block shots. They hustled from end to end, taking shots and shutting down Algeria's counterattacks. They even shed blood, with Clint Dempsey sporting a busted lip afterward.
"We all believed we were going to win this game," Jozy Altidore said. "No other result would have worked for us."
Less than a minute into injury time, Howard made a spectacular save and fed the ball to Donovan. He sent a long pass to Altidore, whose shot on the breakaway was tipped by Clint Dempsey into goalkeeper Rais Bolihi. The rebound went to Donovan, who tapped it in, setting off a raucous celebration.
Donovan belly-flopped into the corner, and his teammates quickly dogpiled on top of him. Chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" thundered through the stadium.
It's the reaction back home that's even more telling, however. The fans who made the long, expensive trip to South Africa are going to be fans regardless of where the Americans finish here. It's the folks just discovering the allure of the beautiful game that matter.
People who played hooky from work to watch the game at a bar exchanged hugs and high-fives. Screams of elation were heard on suburban streets. Twitter and Facebook were flooded with celebratory posts.
"I'd be surprised if we didn't make a few more fans tonight," Donovan said, a smile playing on his lips. "My guess is Saturday is going to be a pretty cool occasion for our country."
That's when the Americans play in the next round, the first knockout stage.
PST: Jozy Altidore scored in a fourth straight game and the United States beat Honduras in World Cup qualifying to stay atop the group.
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