AL RAYYAN, Qatar – If the United States‘ World Cup adventure is to survive beyond Tuesday night, a couple of things will be needed.
A win – obviously – and no other outcome. A goal – clearly – for you can’t win without scoring one. And a hero – or heroes – prepared to seize the day and change their lives forever.
Soccer is about big moments, when an individual provides a snapshot of inspiration that alters everything. Whoever it might be for the USA, it is realistic to assume there could be things in their future like a talk-show appearance, a Wheaties box cover and an eternal position as a beloved figure in American soccer circles.
Landon Donovan knows what it is like to be the man of the hour, scoring the most nerve-jangling goal in USA men’s soccer history, a stoppage time special against Algeria in 2010 to secure a place in the knockout round and avoid elimination.
Now a FOX Sports World Cup analyst, Donovan walked us through a four-point plan on how any one of Gregg Berhalter’s young squad can find their own slice of magic, and how to handle it if the opportunity comes.
It is not a foolproof blueprint, for there is no such thing at the most competitive tournament in sports. But as destiny beckons, the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah and captain Tyler Adams would do well to heed the advice … of a man who knows.
Step 1: Pre-match poise to prepare for posterity
“The best bit is that you know you need to win,” Donovan told me. “That’s the ‘easy’ bit, if there is such a thing. Where there is some ambiguity and you need to be concerned with what is happening somewhere else, that’s when it can get a little more complicated.”
Things were not quite as clearcut for the USA in 2010. Heading into the game there were still some scenarios whereby a tie might be good enough to advance. When Jermain Defoe scored for England against Slovenia, the picture became a little clearer. Victory was needed.
“In the (2022) situation, all that goes out the window, worrying about someone else or something else,” Donovan said. “Here, there is nothing else to think about.”
“The guys need to be positive, positive and confident, and I think they will be.”
— Landon Donovan on playing with poise
Step 2: When the going gets tough … the USA must get going
In the 20th minute of the Algeria game, the USA had a Clint Dempsey goal disallowed for offside, which television replays would show was an incorrect call. It left Donovan with an uneasy feeling that was difficult to shake.
“It is tough because you know that games like this are going to be determined by one or maybe two plays,” Donovan said. “That’s how it always seems to be. When one of those goes against you, it is hard to deal with.
“You have to get yourself back together and keep playing the way that created the chance. At the time, of course, we didn’t know for sure if it should have been a goal or not.”
Reset and refocus are easy instructions to give, somewhat more difficult to adhere to. So far in the tournament, the only truly testing moment came when Gareth Bale equalized for Wales in the 82nd minute. Berhalter’s group did not let the disappointment unduly affect them, and finished strongly.
“The reality is there is nothing you can do,” Donovan said. “You have to keep going.”
USMNT legends DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan get inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame
Step 3: Tick-tock, how many minutes on the clock?
One of the most difficult parts of an elimination game is being able to play through the knowledge that time is dwindling away. If the game presses on and there is still a deadlock, you can be sure Iran will be doing all it can to disrupt the rhythm and slow the game down further.
“You are just in the game, you are not consumed by it, but there is human nature and you are literally looking at the clock every minute,” Donovan said. “It is just what you do, it is not conscious.”
By this stage, don’t expect the game to look anything close to how it did at the beginning. More risks will be taken, more improvisation from the American forwards.
“When it got to that point in 2010, our forward players were just cheating on defense all the time, just staying upfield and taking our chances in transition,” Donovan continued. “What gets lost about that game is that our back four, plus Michael Bradley and Tim Howard, were just incredible in keeping us in the game.
“That’s the part of it that people take their eye off. Yes, you have to score. But your defense has to have a huge game otherwise the job gets even harder.”
Step 4: Cometh the hour, who’s it going to be?
A thunderous strike from outside the area. A crunching header from a corner. A nerveless penalty kick. A loose ball that bounces around the box and goes in off someone’s backside.
Any of the above, the USA would gleefully accept. It doesn’t matter how you score; it just matters that you do. And, that when the chance falls to the of whichever player fate decides, he is ready for it.
“It is going to come down to whoever makes a play,” Donovan said. “It is your own instinct, tactics and game plan are virtual obsolete at that point, by the time it gets to 15-20 minutes left.
“When the time comes it is almost automatic. Your legs are tired, you’ve given everything, but you need to give more. Stay as calm as you can. Make the play. That’s all you are trying to do.”
Donovan made the play. Collecting the ball from Howard with nearly 91 minutes already elapsed, he strode forward with purpose. After Jozy Altidore crossed to the middle and Clint Dempsey’s shot was blocked, he sprinted forward to slide the winning goal into the net.
It was, quite simply, unforgettable.
Adams quipped this week that he hoped the USA “doesn’t leave it so late” this time. How it happens, and when it happens, doesn’t matter. Just that it happens.
Donovan believes it will.
“They know they can beat Iran,” he said. “This is a game they can absolutely win. “They will not be intimidated. They must not be intimidated.”
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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