IRENE, South Africa - The clock ticked into the 70th minute, and Tim Howard started to get anxious.
"I thought, damn, at this point we're going home and I didn't want to get on that long flight," the American goalkeeper said.
Not to worry. The United States saves its best for the last 20 minutes.
Landon Donovan's injury-time goal with the U.S. team on the brink of elimination gave the Americans a 1-0 victory over Algeria, and now they will meet Ghana Saturday for a berth in the World Cup quarterfinals.
It's just the latest instance of the United States striking late. Among the others:
Against Slovenia in the second group-stage game, Michael Bradley scored in the 82nd minute to tie the game at 2-2, and the Americans' now infamous disallowed goal followed in the 85th.
In World Cup qualifying, Bradley's 90th-minute goal finished a 2-0 win over Mexico; Jozy Altidore and Frankie Hejduk each scored in the last 15 minutes to gain a 2-2 tie at El Salvador; and Jonathan Bornstein's injury-time goal tied Costa Rica 2-2, knocking Los Ticos out of the World Cup and putting Honduras in.
Donovan's goal against Algeria was more dramatic than the others and seen by more people. But it's part of this team's DNA.
"I think that's been the trait for the U.S. team for the last 10, 12 years," Carlos Bocanegra said. "Guys get together and they work hard for each other and they fight for each other. The egos don't get involved. Everybody wants to play their heart out for the next guy."
So if the Americans are so effective at the end of games, why can't they start off the same way? It puzzles the players as much as anyone.
"For whatever reason we seem to grow in strength and confidence as the game goes on," Howard said. "The danger in that is the vulnerability at the beginning. But at the same time the longer we can go and keep at a zero - 20 minutes, 30 minutes, get to halftime - our chests start to come out, and so that's a good thing. Now I've just got to figure out and make sure we don't concede early."
The U.S. team has never won a World Cup match in which it trailed, and there are no more draws now that the Americans are heading to the knockout stage. That, plus the Americans' style, makes some of its strongest supporters nervous.
When the Americans were eliminated by Ghana in their 2006 first-round finale at Nuremberg, Germany, they fell behind twice. They couldn't come back both times.
One big difference in tomorrow's game at Rustenburg will be the absence of Black Stars midfielder Michael Essien, sidelined by a knee injury.
Jozy Altidore said this U.S. team doesn't get flustered. "The mentality is we're never out of the game," he said. "Even in the 91st minute, Landon is clapping, getting guys together. Carlos is barking out directions."