PRETORIA, South Africa — Landon Donovan could not hold back the tears as he described his “Hollywood moment,” but even Tinseltown couldn’t have dreamed up an ending quite this epic.
It had all the ingredients of a blockbuster movie with drama, thrills and maybe even a remarkable love story after Donovan blew an on-camera kiss to his former wife, actress Bianca Kajlich.
Minutes earlier, with one flick of his right boot, Donovan was cast as the hero after sealing the most dramatic victory in United States men’s soccer history on Wednesday night with a stoppage-time goal in a 1-0 win over Algeria that sent the team into the World Cup’s round of 16.
But perhaps the greatest prize of all awaits. Donovan has made no secret of his regret at the way his relationship to Kajlich, who stars on the TV show “Rules of Engagement,” broke down last year. His post-goal kiss and reference to Kajlich will have the entertainment tabloids speculating about a fairytale reconciliation.
“Experiences can harden you and help you if you let them,” Donovan wept at the postgame news conference. “It all came together tonight. This is pretty satisfying.
“A lot has happened in my life. I have worked hard and it is nice to know that sometimes hard work gets rewarded. This is the kind of thing I wanted, the chance to help my country, the chance to show I could produce great things, the chance to do what I know I can do. It is amazing.”
Donovan and his teammates looked set to be dumped out of the tournament in the group stage as Algeria’s defense held firm before the 28-year-old created some magic of his own. His sprint into the box and strike off a rebound from goalkeeper Rais Bolhi’s save saved the U.S. and sent Loftus Versfeld Stadium into delirium.
Just a couple more minutes and the USA would have been sent packing in disappointment after a series of missed chances and another goal that was wrongly disallowed by the officials. Just a couple of more minutes and Donovan would have been branded as a player who fails to perform when it matters most.
The defeat probably would led to head coach Bob Bradley’s firing. And that would have allowed America to, for the most part, forget about soccer for another four years.
“This is so significant,” Bradley said. “It means everything to our group of players. I am so proud of them and the way they gave their all, right to the very end they refused to let their heads drop.”
For Donovan, the victory held the most significance. Hailed as a rising star after his starring role in the 2002 World Cup and heavily criticized by the public and himself for his sub-standard performance four years ago in Germany, this tournament in South Africa was all about redemption.
He would never take his talent for granted again. And this World Cup, he said, was the payoff for his re-dedication to the game.
Since then, he has grown and matured as a person, going through a public divorce from Kajlich and producing strong performances in Europe during a loan spell with Everton in the English Premier League following three failed moves to Germany’s Bundesliga, including a tryout stint at European powerhouse Bayern Munich.
“I had a long hard look and decided I was going to do things a different way,” he said. “That no longer was I going to just rely on my ability. I was going to try to be the best, every time. I knew that if I got another chance at a World Cup I was going to take it.”
The victory sent the Americans to the top of Group C, and it means they will face the second-place team from Group D in Rustenburg on Saturday. England’s win over Slovenia meant it also advanced as Group C’s runner-up.
The U.S. dominated Algeria but were repeatedly thwarted by bad luck, bad finishing and bad officiating.
“Sometimes you just think that it won’t be your night,” Bradley said. “But when I looked at it I saw we were still playing well, still creating, still in good shape. It [Donovan’s goal] came very late, and it is very satisfying.”
Clint Dempsey had one goal disallowed for offside and Jozy Altidore missed another opportunity when he remarkably missed an open goal.
But that just set the scene for Donovan and his Hollywood ending. The sequel awaits.