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On soccer

Group hug

US dramatically clinches its spot in next Cup round

By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 24, 2010

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Finally, here was the moment they’d craved, that they felt they’d deserved because they’d done so much to earn it. The United States soccer team had the winning goal called back against Slovenia and the go-ahead goal revoked yesterday, both times wrongly. When was fortune going to turn in their favor?

Now, with the clock running on added time in their group finale against Algeria, here was the Americans’ salvation shot with the keeper down and their best player all alone in front with victory at his feet.

“The ball fell to me and time kind of stopped,’’ Landon Donovan said. “Can’t miss from there.’’

And so, with one swing of the leg, the eternally baby-faced terminator changed everything for his teammates, who abruptly went from being out of the World Cup to winning their group for the first time in 80 years.

“Of course we should have and could have scored earlier, which would have spared us that dramatic ending,’’ said Donovan, after his 91st-minute goal had given the Yanks a 1-0 decision over Les Fennecs in Pretoria and a second-round Saturday date with Ghana, which booted them out four years ago.

But that would have been out of character for a crew that insists on using the John Paul Jones playbook. They don’t begin fighting until the mast has been toppled, the deck is on fire, and seawater is pouring over the gunwales. The Yanks spotted the English a goal in the fourth minute of their 1-1 draw. They were two down to the Slovenes at halftime of their 2-2 draw. Yesterday they waited until after Belgian referee Frank De Bleeckere tacked on an extra four minutes before they made their winning push.

“I was worried because we could have come away empty-handed,’’ said coach Bob Bradley, whose squad would have gone three-and-out for the fourth time in the last six tournaments had it drawn again. “But my players decided otherwise and never stopped believing.’’

If you watch the Bradley Bunch long enough, they’ll make you crazy, yet you don’t dare stop watching them. Their ongoing Great Escape at the bottom of the planet is maddeningly similar to their leap from the coffin in last year’s Confederations Cup, which was South Africa’s dress rehearsal for the Big Dance. After being hammered by Italy and Brazil and left for dead, the Americans came back to blow away Egypt, shut out European champion Spain, and take a two-goal halftime lead on Brazil before falling in the final.

Any side that can accomplish that should have been able to survive this group without all the cardiac follies. Yet the fact remains that the US, for all of its brinksmanship, managed to do that and more, topping a quartet that most of the planet had conceded to England.

More significantly, the Americans did it without help. When they advanced in 1994 and 2002, it was thanks to the kindness of strangers. This time they earned it straight-up, winning their first group finale since 1930 while managing to avoid an encounter with the Germans, who will be having Sunday tea with the English instead.

There were three ways the US could have gone through yesterday but two depended upon England either losing to or drawing with Slovenia. Once Jermain Defoe scored for the Lions in the 23d minute, the options essentially were reduced to one. Win or die. Had Clint Dempsey, who clearly was no worse than level with his defender, not been ruled offside on his goal, the Americans would have been in control well before halftime.

Instead they had to keep attacking at the risk of giving up a killer counterstrike that would have put them on an early plane back to the States. Several times they had the winning tally on the tip of their toe. But Jozy Altidore put a sitter over the bar with the net empty. Dempsey had a point-blank chance stopped, then later hit a post and put the rebound high and wide. And Algerian keeper Rais Mbolhi blocked an Edson Buddle header and a Michael Bradley free kick.

“C’mon, c’mon,’’ Bob Bradley kept shouting, clapping his hands and urging his guys forward. As the clock ticked past 90 minutes, there figured to be time for one last foray. Here came Donovan, off a brisk outlet from keeper Tim Howard, sending Altidore forward. And here again came Donovan, to take the shot that he knew he wouldn’t miss.

“It’s a good thing that it happened that way, so quickly,’’ said Donovan, who’d scored the vital first goal against Slovenia that gave his flagging mates a heartbeat. “I didn’t even have time to think what I was going to do.’’

Donovan and his playmates have made a habit of winning hearts after nearly stopping them. They may have been 80-1 shots when they arrived but the Yanks are still standing while the French have gone home and the Spanish and Italians are sweating it out. The Bradley Bunch may set their alarm on the late side, but they play Beat The Clock better than anyone.

“We’re not done yet,’’ crowed Donovan. “We believe, man. We’re alive, baby.’’

Material from the wire services was used in this report; John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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