Landon Donovan scored one of the most dramatic goals in USMNT history at the 2010 World Cup. (www.AndyMead/YCJPhoto)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

For the first time in the World Cup, the United States not only finished the group stage unbeaten in 2010, but the Americans also won it in dramatic fashion.

Of course, getting there was something a tying and trying experience.

Here is a look at the USA’s four games:

When a tie feels like a win

It might not have been a victory, but the U.S. National Team still wound up making international headlines in the most positive way in Rustenburg, South Africa on June 12.

Playing one of the World Cup contenders even and taking advantage of a gift goal, the Americans walked out of Royal Bafokeng Stadium with a stunning 1-1 draw with highly favored England in Group C confrontation before 38,646 enthusiastic fans.

While the game will not be remembered for the U.S.’s earth-shattering and historic 1-0 win over England at the 1950 World Cup, the Americans certainly proved their point to earn a precious point.

The result had to feel more like a win to the Americans, who were the underdogs against an England team that had English Premier League players from top to bottom in the lineup.

“Defensively, we did our job,” said former MetroStars goalkeeper Tim Howard, named man of the match for his overall play, seven saves and ability to bounce back from a penalty-area collision with Emile Heskey. “It was backs to the wall. It wasn’t pretty.”

For the English, it was downright ugly. The tie will be considered an embarrassment and a loss, which will be dissected for days by a demanding media that will vilify the goalkeeper, who will find out it will not be easy being Robert Green. Green gifted the Americans a goal in the 40th minute, a howler for the ages as he allowed a 25-yard shot by Clint Dempsey to go through both his hands.

The Americans gained a lot of respect at last year’s FIFA Confederations Cup, finishing a surprising second to five-time world champion Brazil. But there were still doubters as to whether they could do it at the sport’s biggest stage.

They proved they could Saturday.

“Anything’s possible,” midfielder Landon Donovan said. “If we play well and we put the kind of effort in today, we feel like we can beat any team in the world. But we have to bring the effort every time.”

There is still much work to be done to call this a successful World Cup. The Americans have a Friday date with Slovenia in Johannesburg — a win could put them through to the second round — and a June 23 encounter with Algeria in Pretoria.

Asked if he feared a letdown, Donovan replied, “We’ve been through this, and it helps we are kind of hardened by this. Last years’ experience is going to help us a lot. We know what this is all about. We’ve been through two World Cups where we’ve had a great game and let down the next game. I know I won’t let that happen and I will make sure the team doesn’t let it happen.”

The pre-game atmosphere was pulsating as the crowd was more partisan for England, although the USA fans, many clad in red, white and blue, certainly were raucous themselves.

There was one big problem. Both of the stadium’s video boards, which usually have the running clock, did not work. That brought a old-time, 1950s feel to the match as fans and media alike were forced to use their watches and electronic devices to figure out the time.

The U.S. received a wake-up goal only four minutes into the match. After a throw-in, Heskey managed to get position on central defender Jay DeMerit for the ball in the penalty area and slipped a short pass to an onrushing Steven Gerrard, who beat Ricardo Clark, considered one of the team’s best defensive midfielders, and Howard.

Howard, never one to hide his disdain at his defense, called the goal, “frustrating. Pretty annoyed because the marking was a little lax because it was the opening of the game, we should be up for it.”

The U.S. equalized in the 40th minute. Dempsey took a 25-yard shot with his left foot that surprised Green on the second bounce of a short hop. He got both gloved hands on the ball, but let it trickle into the left side of the net. Green put his head to the ground in embarrassment and amazement as Dempsey and the USA celebrated a 1-1 deadlock.

Dempsey became the second U.S. player to score in two World Cups, joining former teammate Brian McBride, who tallied in the 1998 and 2002 competitions. Dempsey scored at Germany 2006.

“At the last second it moved a little bit,” Dempsey said. “These balls move so much. You just hit it on goal, you will have a chance. It’s one of those goals where you say, ‘Why can’t I get one like that?’ The ball moves so much.”

Green, a surprise starter over the more experienced David James, was devastated, but he said he would bounce back.

“Obviously, a horrendous, a terrible mistake,” he said. “I take responsibility. It was my mistake. I’ve made mistakes in my career and I’m strong enough to bounce back.”

So was Howard — during the match after Heskey drilled him in the ribs in the 29th minute. Howard was on the ground for several minutes as trainer Pierre Barrieu worked on him while backup Marcus Hahnemann warmed up on the sideline.

“It felt like agony,” he said. “I knew Heskey was going to slide in for the ball. He had every right to. Initially, I was in a lot of pain.”

At halftime, Howard got a cortisone shot. Howard, who has bruised ribs, will be evaluated Sunday.

In the second half, Howard gave the U.S. a big shot in the arm by denying and frustrating England as he picked up where he left off as the top goalkeeper in the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa.

“If you’re up to the challenge, it will bring the best out of you,” he said.

Added Donovan: “For him to just get through it and make some big saves was just fantastic. Tim doesn’t usually get hurt. When he goes down, there’s something wrong. I wasn’t sure he would be able to keep coming. He’s a gamer and he kept going.”

But it was far from a one-man show. The backline of Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, DeMerit and Steve Cherundolo had their moments. In play reminiscent of the Confederations Cup, they threw their bodies around, blocking passes and shots from Wayne Rooney and company when the desperate English were trying for the winning goal during the final 20 minutes.

Onyewu’s performance was particularly encouraging because he hadn’t played a full 90 minutes during the warm-up matches.

“Just the part of being back, he’s a good competitor,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. “I think the longer the game went on the more comfortable he felt, and that’s important to us.”

A great comeback, but still gutted

Mother said there would be days like this, a day that will be talked about for a very long time, not just in the United States, but throughout the entire world.

The U.S. should have left Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 18 proud of the fact the team had battled back from a two-goal second-half deficit to stage its greatest World Cup comeback, a remarkable 2-2 draw with Slovenia on June 18.

Instead, the Americans departed fuming and bewildered as to why they did not emerge as winners after Maurice Edu’s goal was disallowed in the 85th minute of the Group C encounter.

Edu thought he had tallied the winner in the 85th minute, but referee Koman Coulibaly of Mali nullified the goal without giving an explanation as to which player committed the foul in what has to be the Cup’s most controversial decision up to this point. It appeared that that Clint Dempsey had fouled Slovenian Adnras Kirm in the penalty area.

“I’m a little gutted, to be honest,” Donovan said. “They stole a goal from us.”

And two points as well.

Had the Americans emerged with a victory, they would have been in the drivers seat in their quest to reach the second round. They are still very much alive, in second place with a 0-0-2 record and two points. Slovenia (1-0-1, four points) leads the group. England (0-0-2) has two points after its scoreless tie with Algeria (0-1-1, one).

The Americans can secure passage by defeating Algeria on Wednesday or by tying and England loses to Slovenia or if both teams play to a draw, as long as they maintain their goal-scoring edge. The U.S. has three goals, England one.

“This is a must win,” Howard said. “We’re still standing. We’re still fighting. Depending on how a few results go. We’re still in a really good position. We still can control what we can do.”

But the Americans could not control what transpired after midfielder Michael Bradley gave his dad, U.S. coach Bob Bradley, an early Father’s Day present with his equalizer in the 82nd minute.

After a Slovenian foul, Donovan, who scored the first goal in the comeback, sent a free kick from the right side that Edu volleyed into the net, but Coulibaly whistled no goal.

At first, it was assumed there was an offside call, but the assistant referee did not have his flag raised. There was a foul, but it was a mystery to the Americans as to which player was called. They asked Coulibaly, who speaks English, but he did not reply.

According to TV replays watched after the match, it appeared Dempsey had shoved Kirm to free himself just as the play began. Coulibaly appeared to have called a foul before Edu scored.

“It was frustrating,” said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, who said he had been “bear-hugged” on the play. “From what I heard, quite a few guys were getting tackled on that play. If there was any foul, it was against their team. FIFA had a meeting with us at the beginning of the tournament on how grabbing and pulling on free kicks is not going to be allowed. It works against us this time.”

Michael Bradley had to be restrained from going after the referee after the game.

The controversy overshadowed a remarkable second-half comeback, one of the great second-half rallies in the 80-year history of the tournament.

For the second consecutive game, the Americans found themselves behind early – they allowed England to take a 1-0 lead in the 1-1 draw in their opener – as they gave Valter Birsa all sorts of room on his 25-yard rocket past Howard in the 13th minute. Onyewu allowed Zlatan Ljubijankic to slip by him to score from eight yards in the 42nd minute, giving Slovenia a seemingly commanding 2-0 lead.

“We started the match poorly. We were tentative,” Donovan said. “I think we sat too deep which caused us problems. At that point you have no choice but to push the game.”

Added Howard: “We seem to play better when we’re behind and that’s all got to change.”

But the U.S. refused to roll over and die.

“My guess is there aren’t many teams in this tournament that could have done what we did, and arguably win the game,” Donovan said. “That is what the American spirit is about and I’m sure people back home are proud of that.”

Donovan, who was fed by right fullback Steve Cherundolo, took advantage of a slip by Bostjan Cesar on the right flank and motored in alone on goal before rifling a point-blank shot into the top of the net in the 48th minute.

“If there had been an option across the goal, I probably would have rolled it across the goal,” Donovan said. “But in the end, I decided to take a touch, aim high and aim at his head, and I don’t think he wanted to get hit from there.”

It was Donovan’s third career World Cup goal and first since the 2002 competition.

Bradley, who played a strong game at central midfield, equalized in the 82nd minute. Donovan sent a long ball into the area that Jozy Altidore headed to Bradley, who knocked home the shot.

It was the first time a son had scored for his father as a coach in the World Cup.

Drama kings win it at the death

Landon Donovan gave four years of professional and personal frustration one swift kick of a lifetime in Pretoria on June 18 Wednesday.

On the verge of saying goodbye to the World Cup with Team USA’s third consecutive tie, Donovan saved the never-say-die Americans with the most dramatic and arguably most important goal in U.S. soccer history.

Donovan connected a minute into stoppage time en route to a 1-0 Group C win over Algeria, a result that not only propelled the U.S. into the second round, but made the Americans group winners for the first time since the 1930 competition, before a crowd of 35,827, which included President Clinton at Loftus Versfeld Stadium.

The Americans (1-0-2, five points) will meet Ghana in Rustenburg at 2:30 p.m. Saturday in a rematch of their 2006 World Cup first-round encounter in Germany.

Donovan certainly will remember that match in Germany. It marked his greatest failure as a player as the winless U.S. failed to reach the second round.

“I’ve been through a lot in the last four years, and I’m so glad it culminated this way,” said an emotional Donovan, who cried while answering the question in a press conference. “It makes me believe in good in the world, and when you try to do things the right way, it’s good to see them get rewarded.”

His personal low point was his separation from actress Bianca Kajlich, whom he blew an on-camera kiss to during Wednesday’s match.

“Those experiences can harden you and help you grow if you learn from them and if you look at them the right way,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of time and done a lot of work to get something out of those experiences, and I think it all came together tonight.”

Not just for one game. Donovan has been the Americans’ best player, thanks to his all-around play and ability to create and score goals. So it was quite fitting that Donovan created and scored the game-winner, his second goal of the tournament and 44th internationally.

The sequence took 12 seconds.

Howard saved a 7-yard header by Rafik Saifi and threw the ball to the right side to Donovan, who raced up the field unmarked. He led Jozy Altidore with a pass, and the former Red Bull touched it to Clint Dempsey, who took a shot as goalkeeper Rais M’Bolhi slid in to stop the drive.

The ball came to Donovan, who slotted it home from seven yards.

“The moment kind of slowed down for me,” Donovan said. “It’s a reaction. It’s good that it happened quickly. You don’t want too much time to think about it.”

Donovan celebrated by belly flopping at the left corner flag as his teammates piled on.

The Americans closed out the final three minutes and partied like they had won the World Cup. An elated Donovan kicked the ball into the stands before leading the team toward a huge American contingent that was applauding its supporters.

“Sometimes in a game like that you feel like you’re never going to score,” Donovan said. “I don’t think any of us felt that. … We’ve got a lot of guys who on a given moment, on a given day, can step up and make a big play, and tonight it was my turn.”

A heart-breaking loss

The United States’ World Cup of living dangerously finally caught up to the team in Rustenburg on June 26.

They again overcame an early deficit but could not use their magic to offset Asamoah Gyan’s extra-time goal en route to a 2-1 loss in a Round of 16 match at Royal Bafokeng Stadium.

The defeat had to be a bitter pill to swallow for the U.S., which had a relatively easy bracket through to the semifinals. These opportunities do not come along very often.

Ghana, the lone African team remaining in the competition, will play Uruguay in the quarterfinals at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg on Friday. The U.S., which was eliminated by the Black Stars for the second consecutive World Cup by the very same score, will return home as soon as possible.

“Obviously, we are disappointed,” said Donovan, whose 62nd-minute penalty tied it at 1-1. “The way we went out was frustrating because we played a pretty good game and made a couple of mistakes and got punished for it.

“It’s a tough lesson to learn when you don’t get a chance to redeem yourself. I guess the warning signs were there, getting scored on early and it came back to bite us finally.”

After the game, Donovan sat on the U.S. bench by himself.

“The finality of it is brutal,” said Donovan, who had three of the teams’ five goals. “You realize how much you’ve put into it, not only for the last four years, but your whole life. There’s no guarantee there’s another opportunity at that.”

While anytime a team gets bounced from the World Cup is tough enough, this could be even more difficult because the U.S. did not have one of the superpowers in its bracket. So it had a decent chance to reach the semifinals.

“Certainly there’s an opportunity missed,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We should have won the game, certainly at least take it to penalty kicks, but it wasn’t to be.”

Still, this has to be the country’s third most successful WC, having reached the semifinals in 1930 and the quarterfinals in 2002. The Americans won their group for the first time (1-0-2), although they never led in regulation in any of their four games.

For the third time in four games, the U.S. surrendered the first goal. As it turned out, they allowed Ghana to score three minutes into the first extra time.

“I don’t know if we had anything left we were pushing so much the entire tournament,” Bocanegra said.

Added Howard: “We just gave ourselves too much of a mountain to climb. We couldn’t come back.”

The winning goal became a battle between Rennes teammates from the French First Division.

Gyan took a long pass from Andre Ayew and beat Bocanegra, who tried pushing him off the ball, and then sent a left-footed shot past Howard to the right corner.

“I couldn’t grab him,” Bocanegra said. “I already had a yellow card. I don’t know how close we were in the box to foul him. . . . It’s a bit unfortunate that he had the inside track to the ball and he’s quite pacey as well. It was difficult for me on the other side of him.”

Don’t expect Bocanegra to talk about this one to Gyan any time in the near future.

“I’d like to forget about this one sooner rather than later,” he said.

The U.S. would like to forget about Ghana’s first goal in the fifth minute. Kevin Prince Boateng stripped Ricardo Clark of the ball at midfield and bolted down on the left side before beating Howard with a 12-yard shot.

“You put yourself in that spot one too many times and you expend a lot of energy,” coach Bob Bradley said.