PRETORIA - Over and over, everything seemed to go against them.
A referee took away a win last week, and a linesman disallowed another goal Wednesday.
Now there were just 3 1/2 minutes left in their World Cup, just that much remaining until all the doubts about American soccer would rise again.
But then, in one of the most stunning turnarounds in World Cup history, Landon Donovan scored on a lightning-fast counterattack 45 seconds into injury time. With the most amazing late-game moment in American soccer history, the United States beat Algeria 1-0 and reached the World Cup's second round.
It was the United States' first victory in a World Cup match in eight years, and the U.S. team finished atop its first-round group for the first time since the original World Cup in 1930.
MARTIN ROSE / GETTY IMAGES Enlarge
There have been other important American triumphs - over England in the 1950 World Cup; over Trinidad and Tobago to qualify for the 1990 World Cup, the first for the United States in 40 years; over Spain, then the world's No. 1 team, at the 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. But Wednesday's win ranked right up there with any of them.
"It's the biggest win we've ever had for so many reasons," said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "One is obviously the fashion in which it happened. Second is the overcoming of adversity, not just today but given what happened in the last game. And three, most of the country was tuned in to the game."
Until Donovan scored, the U.S. team was headed home under the World Cup's complicated tie-breaker system. Now the Americans will play Ghana on Saturday in Rustenburg, South Africa, for a spot in the quarterfinals.
Coming into yesterday's match, which was also a must-win game for Algeria, the Americans had failed to make it out of group play five times in seven tournaments.
"This team embodies what the American spirit is about," Donovan said. "We had a goal disallowed the other night, We had another good goal disallowed tonight. But we just keep going. And I think that's what people admire so much about Americans. And I'm damn proud."
Former President Bill Clinton lingered in the locker room for 45 minutes after the game to congratulate the players. A team official said Mr. Clinton repeatedly told the team how proud he was of them.
When Donovan scored, raucous cheers erupted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and even in White House auditoriums, according to e-mails sent to Mr. Gulati.
"That's probably going to capture more people's attention than if we won the game 3-0 and it was easy," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
The Americans lost one goal on a questionable offside call, another to an inexplicably bad shot by Jozy Altidore, and a third chance, early in the second half, when Clint Dempsey hit the post with one shot, then knocked the rebound past an open net.
"You shake it out of your head and keep on fighting," Dempsey said.
The game went on past the 90 minutes of regulation and into stoppage time - the minutes added to the clock by the referee based on halts in play for injuries and other delays.
The United States got its final break when Howard knocked down an Algerian shot, then whipped the ball up to Donovan, racing along the right side. Donovan passed the ball to Altidore deep in the Algerian end. Altidore's pass to Dempsey hit Dempsey's foot at about the same time Algerian goalkeeper Rais Bolhi did.
With Bolhi, who played a magnificent game, on the ground, Donovan was able to swoop in and knock the loose ball into the back of the net for the win.
"Hands down, the biggest moment of my career," said Donovan.
After his 44th international goal, a U.S. record, Donovan ran joyously to the corner flag, sliding headfirst in a belly flop. His teammates ran down the sideline to mob him.
"A lot of kisses. A little uncomfortable," Donovan said. "It's something I'll have imbedded in my mind forever."
Even 30 minutes later, Donovan's eyes watered and his voice cracked as he talked about the goal.
The field long empty, American fans remained in the stands, still cheering and waving the Stars and Stripes.-25.74587 28.18763
With the most amazing late-game moment in American soccer history, the United States beat Algeria 1-0 and reached the World Cup's second round.