It wasn't for complete lack of effort. The Americans nearly gave up an early goal to Algeria, with a shot that rang off the crossbar probably stopping Tim Howard's heart, but then the U.S. players righted the shaky ship and started to put pressure on the Algerian defence.
An offside that was questionable on a Dempsey goal gave way to other chances. Jozy Altidore contrived to miss an open goal with the goalkeeper out.
In the other Group C match, England scored the goal that would send them through to the next round. That result, if the score of both matches stood, would leave the USA out of the World Cup.
Dempsey fired a shot off the post, then seemed shocked when the rebound fell to him and couldn't put the opportunity away.
Other chances on free kicks and corners went begging for both sides. Though the game was lively, no one was precise in the finish. A blanket of nerves suffocated the field of play in the second half. Aware that both teams were finishing behind England and Slovenia, even the fans in the stands looked defeated.
The late additions of Edson Buddle and DaMarcus Beasley had little effect on the game. As the clock expired, with only a few minutes of injury time left, hope on its last heartbeat.
Landon Donovan, meanwhile, was not having a heroic game. He didn't play badly, but he seemed a bit tired, and whether because of that or Algeria marking him out of the game, he wasn't having much impact on the game. His deliveries on set pieces were perhaps his biggest contribution, but with the aimless, desperate attempts by the USA players, these ceased to appear very dangerous.
However, in injury time, Howard quickly tossed a ball to Donovan, who started a quick attacking play, sending a through-ball to Altidore. Altidore charged into the box and slid a pass to Dempsey, who did well to put the ball on frame, and though the goalkeeper saved the shot, the rebound got away from him. Donovan had been following the play the whole time and sidefooted a shot into the corner of the goal.
It was a simple goal, really, an efficient, calm closure, but that was exactly what neither team had proved capable of all match long.
Cometh the hour | Donovan showed again why he is the talisman for his country
Sometimes, critics are harsh on Donovan's goalscoring record for the USA, pointing out that so many times he scores on well-taken penalty kicks and low shots, rather than spectacular strikes.
Donovan is capable of those, true, as his goal versus Slovenia showed. However, he is a thinker on the field, and more often than not, he will always play the percentages, passing to an open teammate, striking a safer shot to finish a play.
When he was younger, he had a tendency to overthink in games. Unlike players who can only shoot or pass, Donovan's talents allow for a variety of options and at times, he wouldn't make up his mind quickly enough. Missed chances would frustrate him.
It would be easy for the USA to make excuses. Dempsey's goal had been called back, and Maurice Edu's winner in the earlier match versus Slovenia was also disallowed. Excuses wouldn't bring back a World Cup chance, though.
"You can't miss from there," Donovan said after the final whistle, but if there is anything that Robert Green's gaffe and even the USA's own earlier misses made clear, it's that World Cup nerves are as monumental as the tournament itself.
Whether due to his disappointments in the past, and any promises he made to rise to the occasion when called upon, Donovan was the defibrilator that shocked the USA team back to life, the machine who controlled his emotions in the moment that calm was most needed.
Sometimes the simple things are the most difficult to do. When no one else on the field that day could finish or score, Donovan finally, finally did it.