PRETORIA, South Africa — In the 2002 World Cup, Landon Donovan was a 20-year-old phenom of whom little was asked except to play the game he loved. And what stood out was the naive exuberance of his game.
Entering the 2006 World Cup, Donovan sought to be a leader on the U.S. squad. But he buckled under the pressure, and the Americans suffered for it, eliminated after a winless slog through the first round.
Wednesday, with the Americans three minutes from replicating that ignoble result, Donovan scored a goal that made U.S. soccer history, delivering a 1-0 victory over Algeria that propelled the Americans into the World Cup's round of 16, as the top finisher in Group C, no less, showing up widely favored England with four goals in three matches to England's two.
It confirmed Donovan's emergence as the most important figure on the U.S. squad, its anchor and its engine, at 5 feet 8, 158 pounds, despite a voice so hushed listeners must lean forward to hear what he's saying.
Asked about the feeling of scoring that all-important goal, Donovan wept as he tried to explain.
"I've been through a lot in the last four years," he said haltingly, alluding to his divorce from his wife, Bianca, whom he considers his closest friend, and the disappointing World Cup result in 2006.
"And I'm so glad it culminated this way," Donovan continued after a pause to compose himself. "It makes me believe in good in the world. When you try to do things the right way, it's good to see it get rewarded."
When Donovan scored, raucous cheers erupted on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and even in White House auditoriums in Washington, D.C., according to e-mails sent to U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati.
"That's probably going to capture more people's attention than if we won the game 3-0 and it was easy," American goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "That emotion, that passion is what American sports fans thrive on."
The win was the United States' first in the World Cup in eight years, and the Americans (1-0-2) finished atop their group for the first time since the original World Cup in 1930. They had five points, as did England (1-0-2) after a 1-0 win over Slovenia, but won on goal differential.
Slovenia (1-1-1) was third with four points, missing advancing because of Donovan's heroics. Algeria (0-2-1) was last with one point.
The Americans play Ghana on Saturday for a spot in the quarterfinals. Ghana won the final match of the opening round against the Americans to knock them out of the tournament in Germany four years ago.
Wednesday, Clint Dempsey appeared to score in the 21st minute off a rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot, but the goal was called offside.
"This team embodies what the American spirit is about," Donovan said. "We just keep going."
The score was still 0-0 and about 30 seconds into four minutes of extra time when Howard started the counterattack that led to the goal that counted. He knocked down an Algerian shot and rolled the ball to Donovan on the right flank. Donovan moved upfield and passed ahead to Jozy Altidore just inside the 18-yard box.
Altidore's right-footed cross was flicked by Dempsey as he crashed into goalkeeper Rais Bolhi. "I couldn't chip it over the keeper, so I just tried to hit it under him — hit it hard," Dempsey said.
As Dempsey tumbled over the goalkeeper, the ball rolled back out. In ran Donovan, who with a right-footed shot from 7 yards, slammed the ball into the lower left corner. "The moment kind of slowed down for me. It was as much a reaction as anything," Donovan said
After his U.S. record 44th international goal, Donovan joyously ran to the corner flag, sliding headfirst in a belly flop, and his teammates ran down the touchline to mob him.
"A lot of kisses. A little uncomfortable," Donovan said. "It's something I'll have imbedded in my mind forever."
When the game ended, Donovan kicked the final ball into the stands. "Someone got a nice souvenir," he said.
Even 30 minutes later, his eyes watered and voice cracked as he talked about the goal. "We're not done yet," Donovan said. "We believe, man. We're alive, baby."