Look Back: Donovan on USA vs. Italy in the 2006 World Cup
The last time the United States and Italy took the stage together, the scene unfolded as dramatically as an Italian opera. There was tension, elation, near tragedy, and ultimately a triumph. Three years later, it remains one of the most poignant moments in Landon Donovan's long history in the sport.
"That was one of the most memorable games in my career," said Donovan. "It gives me goose bumps just talking about it."
Even before the opening act began, there was a sense that something magical was in the air.
"I remember seeing all the fans walking up the hill to the stadium,” said the U.S. Men’s National Team’s all-time leading scorer. “We had the big U.S. supporters section, the Italian fans, and all of the soldiers from Ramstein Air Force base who had come to support us. Even during the national anthem, I remember both teams singing so passionately. It was among the loudest I have ever heard. Being up there on the top of that hill in Kaiserslautern, it felt like that game was the only thing going on in the world at that moment."
Played at Fritz-Walter Stadion - the home of FC Kaiserslautern - the arena sits at the top of the hill, which considering the challenge the U.S. faced, may as well have been Mt. Olympus. Having lost 3-0 to the Czech Republic three days earlier, the USA needed a result against one of the world's most daunting defenses in order to keep their dreams of advancement alive. For Donovan, the quick turnaround was a blessing in disguise.
"The beauty of that was there was no time to think about it,” he said. “We needed a result - that was all there was to it. There was no time to overanalyze; we knew we just had to get after it."
The match started at a blistering pace, and through the first 21 minutes the U.S. team had control of the eventual World Champions. Then, like in any compelling drama, a giant setback befell the protagonists. In the 22nd minute, Andrea Pirlo served an in-swinger into the box that Alberto Gilardino craftily headed home. Just like that, the USA's World Cup hopes looked in serious jeopardy.
The challengers breathed new life five minutes later when a Bobby Convey free kick from the right sideline was awkwardly touched by Cristian Zaccardo at the back post and went in for an own goal. Their prospects grew even brighter a minute later, when a vicious elbow on Brian McBride by Daniele de Rossi left both players seeing red; McBride's warrior face covered in blood while de Rossi received a prompt expulsion from the match.
With renewed confidence and up a man, the U.S. team continued on, only to be deflated just before halftime when Pablo Mastroeni's spirit outmatched his wits, a lunging tackle on Pirlo commanding the second red card of the half.
"We went through a lot of difficult circumstances in the game," Donovan recalled. “There were the emotions of going down a goal in a game that we needed, then equalizing, then the high of going up a man, thinking we have a real chance to win, to then getting a man sent off just before halftime. At that point we felt a little bit deflated, but at the same time we knew that likely if we got a point we were still alive. The way were playing, we felt like we could pull off a play to win this game."
The team’s fortunes eroded rapidly, when Eddie Pope was handed his second yellow card just two minutes into the second stanza. Like many great characters, the adversity only served to strengthen their resolve.
"Eddie gets sent off, and now it's ‘oh crap, this is going to be a tough 40 minutes,’” said Donovan. “What made the game so memorable from that point was that we pulled together and inspired each other because our tournament lives were on the line."
The U.S. immediately set out to stifle the opponent's attack with relentless pursuit, but at the same time unwilling to concede that a victory was not within their grasp.
"We completely limited their chances to score,” Donovan said. “We also created two or three very good chances to win. It was a special feeling at the end once the referee had blown the whistle, realizing we had done something incredible. At the end, we were the only team not to lose to the World Champions."
Equally exhausted and exhilarated, the U.S. players strolled around the stage absorbing the warmth and appreciation of the crowd. Already in that moment, Donovan and his teammates were aware of the near virtuoso performance.
"To get a point from that game considering all that happened, playing against a team of that quality and down a man for that long, felt like a win,” he said. “Not only that, but we were very proud of the way we played. We didn't just defend, we gave everything we had to try and win the game. It was one of our best performances ever as a national team."
With a sense of accomplishment and still a game left to play, Donovan summed up the sentiment of every performer who has exhibited the determination to achieve excellence and rise to the occasion.
"I have rarely felt that tired after a game in my life,” he said. “The feeling of giving just about everything you had and succeeding in some way is an incredible feeling. It's what all athletes aspire to."