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How about that gun-and-run football?

July 3, 2010
Jones By Chris Jones
Special to

PRETORIA, South Africa -- It ended with Landon Donovan slotting home the winning goal -- the advancing goal, the miracle goal -- but it began with goalkeeper Tim Howard putting the hopes of American soccer fans in his suddenly bionic arm.

Donovan, streaking past the halfway line, got the ball only because Howard managed to throw it to him on a single bounce from nearly 40 yards away.

In the chaos after, Donovan wasn't entirely sure how the ball had ended up on his feet -- "I don't know if it was maybe from Timmy," he said -- but it was a conspiracy of circumstance, as well as Howard's arm, that delivered it.

The U.S. goalkeepers don't practice throwing; they perform no throwing drills, set no time aside for it. Their arms are their arms. Marcus Hahnemann, one of the team's reserve keepers, will sometimes pull out a football -- as in an American football, a pigskin -- for them to toss around to warm up their shoulders, but that's the sum of it since they've been in South Africa.

They have talked, however, about the Jabulani -- the controversial World Cup ball from adidas -- and how it's a better throwing ball than a kicking ball. "Throwing with it is definitely more accurate," Hahnemann said Wednesday night. The ball's seeming lightness, as well as the altitude here in South Africa, has also allowed it to carry farther than usual. The keepers have found their throws have more distance.

"I'm not a big thrower," Howard said after the game. "But if there's a plus to the ball, it goes."

The combination of greater distance and accuracy means that the keepers have been more reliant on their arms. Not long before he made his critical throw to Donovan, Howard had thrown another ball to him over the head of Algerian defender Nadir Belhadj. The carry had surprised him, and that stuck in his head.

So did the fact that Donovan was wide open. Because both team's offenses were pressing forward, there was an unusually large gap in the midfield. The Algerians had as many as seven players leaning into Howard, putting huge pressure on the American defense, but also leaving U.S. players unmarked near the halfway line -- the outer limits of Howard's arm.

"That last 45 minutes wasn't soccer," he said. "That was something else. It was a tennis match. It was a track meet."

Howard chose discus. In quick succession, he stopped a Rafik Saifi attempt -- not an easy save, incidentally -- managed to hold on to the ball, sprinted toward the edge of his box, saw Donovan streaking up the field, and launched.

It was the sort of throw normally associated with other keepers, with keepers who have extraordinary arms: England's David James; Brazilian reserve Heurelho Gomes; former Danish international Peter Schmeichel. But because of the ball, the altitude, the adrenaline -- maybe even the desperation -- Howard's throw came up giant.

"I just didn't want to go home," he said. "Thankfully Landon was open. It was easy."

"No, it was a great throw," Hahnemann corrected. "Just straight out, and I could see he was looking to bomb it. Landon was cheating a bit, because we needed to win, and Tim found him. He was just within range."

Any farther, Howard would have had to kick it. And a kick wouldn't have been nearly so accurate. A kick would have left a tougher bounce for Donovan to control. A kick would have given more time for the Algerian defense to react.

A kick wouldn't have worked.

The U.S. team is still in this World Cup only because of that throw -- only because a keeper with a good arm miraculously found himself with a great one, just when he needed it most.

Chris Jones is a contributing editor to ESPN The Magazine and a writer-at-large for Esquire.