Belgium's winner evoked memories of Landon Donovan vs. Algeria
Watching Belgium's last-gasp winner vs. Japan took Noah Davis back some eight years in time ...
In the 91st minute, the narrative was already fixed: The United States men's national team ran hard, dominated the run of play and produced multiple excellent chances but had fallen short against an Algerian team that bent but didn't break. The Americans were headed home, with their three draws not enough to get Bob Bradley's crew through Group C at the 2010 World Cup.
Sometimes, however, sports doesn't care about your game story. In a manner of 10 seconds, everything changes.
In the U.S. box, Tim Howard got the ball and did his best Tom Brady impression, launching a perfect, half-field strike into the path of an onrushing Landon Donovan. The U.S.'s all-time leading scorer took a long touch, followed by a shorter one, before hitting a pass with the outside of his foot to Jozy Altidore, who hit a one-time ball across the face of goal.
Clint Dempsey found the pass, side-footing a shot into Raïs M'Bolhi before his momentum took him over the Algerian goalkeeper and into the net. The rebound trickled to Donovan and he finished the move that started 100 yards away with ease.
"Go, go, USA!" commentator Ian Darke exclaimed on the ESPN broadcast as the red, white, and blue piled onto Donovan at the corner flag in Loftus Versfeld Stadium in Pretoria, South Africa.
It was the most dramatic late-match winner in recent World Cup memory ... until Monday's last-second tally by Belgium to complete their comeback against Japan and win 3-2. That goal looked quite similar, a fact noted by none other than Donovan himself.
The thing about being inside the stadium for the U.S. goal in 2010 is that you could see it coming. While the telecast doesn't catch Howard's outlet pass until it's nearly at midfield, Algeria was obviously stretched as soon as the American goalkeeper got the ball. A quick glance upfield, and the path to a winner was obvious.
It wasn't easy to execute, of course, but nevertheless simple to see how it could come to fruition. Very quickly, there are four streaking Americans players -- Edson Buddle being the answer to the trivia question about who finished the quartet -- against two Algerian defenders. The play happened nearly instantaneously yet also somehow unfolded slowly, too.
American supporters in the stadium exploded into shocked cheers and then euphoric pandemonium. Three friends of mine ended up a couple rows back from their seats after jumping around with the abandon only a transcendent sporting moment can induce.
Up in the press box, things were more subdued. There is (in theory and mostly practice) no cheering in the world of the supposedly unbiased journalist, but journalists are people, too. If you can't get caught up in the excitement, you don't have a soul. No one started singing "The Star-Spangled Banner," but there were quite a few yelps and some smiles. (I will admit to a couple of subtle fist pumps under the table.)
You try to stay objective, but if nothing else, you feel for the guys on the team, players you'd covered, interviewed, come to know a little bit. You understand the joy, and relief, in that pile of bodies at the corner flag. Then you frantically rewrite your game story because the narrative that made sense a quarter of a minute earlier no longer does, replacing it with something else, something more fun, something beautiful.
Almost a decade later, I understand how people felt in Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. Belgium's goal against Japan was dramatic and wonderful and crushing and perfect and about 100 more adjectives to boot.
This time it was Thibaut Courtois beginning the move with a short, rolled ball for Kevin De Bruyne. The Man City star's searing run beyond midfield spread the Japan defenders before he passed wide for Thomas Meunier. The cross was inch-perfect, as was Nacer Chadli's first-time finish, but it was the dummy by Romelu Lukaku between those two moves that set the tone. Without his instinctive decision to let the ball run, who knows what could have happened?
Belgium's goal was really everything you could want in the dying stages of a soccer game; in any moment of any sports match, really. It was the perfect combination of skill, drama and calm.
Still, I'll take that evening in Pretoria any day.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.