Landon Donovan was moments from reliving his worst football heartache, a first-round FIFA World Cup™ exit, when he scored the most important goal of his life to send the United States into the knockout rounds.
The 28-year-old midfielder has battled divorce, unconvincing stints in Europe and first-round disappointment at the 2006 FIFA World Cup but netted the defining goal of his career in stoppage time on Wednesday to snatch a 1-0 victory over Algeria.
"I have been through a lot in the last four years," Donovan said, breaking into tears. "I'm so glad it culminated in this way. It makes me believe in the good in this world. When you try to do things the right way it's nice to get rewarded."
The US spent 90 minutes trying in vain to crack the Desert Foxes before Donovan led a counter-attack by flicking a pass to Jozy Altidore, then running onto an unguarded rebound to slide the ball home in the early seconds of injury time.
"The guys in the back did an unbelievable job of stopping counter after counter to give us a chance so we could get it," Donovan said. "A lot of us broke. I wanted to make a good touch forward. I chose Jozy and Clint [Dempsey] did a good job to get in front of the goalie and it just bounced there. Time kind of stopped. You can't miss from there."
A draw would have sent the Americans home early once again but victory allowed the US squad to finish top of Group C, edging England on goals scored, and book a Saturday match in the round of 16 at Rustenburg.
"Sometimes in soccer you have games like that where you get a lot of chances and they don't go in," Donovan said. "The only thing you can control is if you keep playing."
Such perseverance has summed up Donovan's career and life lately. He failed in three tries at playing in the Bundesliga, only to find success in England early this year during a loan spell at Everton, scoring twice in 13 matches for the Toffees.
Donovan split last July with actress Bianca Kajlich, but said last month that he learned from her and from his disappointment at the US first-round 2006 FIFA World Cup exit and that it has made him a better person. "There were two [lows] really. Soccer was after the 2006 World Cup. Personally was July of last year," Donovan said.
"These experiences can harden you and help you grow if you learn from them and look at them the right way. I've done something to get a lot out of those experiences and tonight it all came together."
US coach Bob Bradley was thrilled by Donovan's decisive intervention. "Without a doubt, Landon has grown in so many different ways," Bradley said. "These challenges came at a good time for him. In 2002, he was young - your first World Cup is really exciting - and 2006 is one where he learned a lot."
Donovan's goal brought an end to an afternoon at Loftus Versfeld that began with the Americans' bus being tapped and cheered by US supporters lining the streets. "To have that happen at a World Cup in South Africa, that was a really special feeling," Bradley said. "To finish the night off with a great win with the support we had, that was something special."