PRETORIA, South Africa - It was just before 11:00 (central time) on a Wednesday morning. The absolute middle of the work week for most Americans. Maybe they were online doing actual work, or maybe they were just idly checking Twitter to pass a few minutes. Suddenly, the website slowed to a crawl. A refresh brought up the infamous Fail Whale. No problem there. Happens all the time to Twitter.
Only the Fail Whale didn't go away. Not for a while.
Many people weren't doing work, of course, Many were following a soccer match in a far away country, maybe placing a gamecast of the game in the bottom corner of their screen, hoping it would avoid the prying eyes of their boss. Those people, the ones who had been following the game from the beginning, were losing hope. The game passed the 90 minute mark, and the United States looked dead in the water. A scoreless draw had eliminated them from the World Cup.
But then, suddenly, the gamecast stopped working. A refresh kept bringing up the same screen: The clock had just crept into stoppage time, Tim Howard had just made a save, and then ... what? Was it over? Was it an Algerian corner? Had a plague of locusts descended upon the stadium?
Another refresh. The action still seemed frozen. Nothing had changed. Except one thing. At the top of the screen: USA 1 0 Algeria.
Back on Twitter, there's finally progress. The Fail Whale was gone. The timelines didn't look to be updated, but the trending topics were. And what a list it was.
USA! USA! USA!
All variations on a theme. It was obvious now. Something incredible had happened:
It wasn't just what that goal meant, though it meant a lot. To say it was the most important goal ever scored by a male American soccer player is a gross understatement. This particular American World Cup team had been followed more closely than perhaps any team before it. And they were falling flat on their faces.
Sure, they had tied England in the first game, but they got that only after scoring a fluke goal that the English keeper should have stopped in his sleep. Another listless draw against Slovenia put the United States on the brink; if they failed to beat Algeria, they wouldn't advance out of group play. An early elimination like that and they risked losing all the goodwill they had earned, all the new fans they had brought to the sport. And as the game crept past the 90 minute mark, it seemed like that was exactly the fate of the US team.
But then Howard made the save, then threw the ball 40 yards in the air, hitting Donovan on the fly with a pass that would make an NFL quarterback proud. Donovan passed it over to Jozy Altidore, who sent it over to Clint Dempsey in the box. When Dempsey's shot was stopped, American soccer fans gasped. But the ball wasn't clear. It was just sitting there in the box as a hard-charging Donovan approached.
That's when Landon Donovan broke the Internet.
It didn't matter that the US was eliminated in their first knockout-round game, falling in extra time to Ghana. They had made their mark, established their legacy. For more than a decade, the country's greatest soccer moment had come when a woman took off her shirt after scoring a goal. There was a new greatest-ever moment. And it was a doozy.
Will Donovan's goal be the spark that pushes soccer into the forefront in American sports? Who knows? It might be impossible to answer that until 10 or more years down the road. But one thing is for sure. For the first time, Americans will be able to remember where they were when a soccer goal was scored. They will remember how they found out about the most important goal in American history, and what they were doing when Landon Donovan broke the Internet.