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Ecstatic U.S. soccer players play follow the leader at the World Cup, and he's Landon Donovan

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010; D08

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 afternoon in Pretoria, 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 was the second time in as many matches that Donovan had extricated his team from what appeared a hopeless abyss.

And it confirmed his 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.

"There's a special feeling when you play on a team where you know people are really counting on you -- where your character and personality are at the core of how that team does," U.S. Coach Bob Bradley said, referring to Donovan, a veteran now of three World Cups. "Some players play their whole careers and never experience that. The fact that he has grown and matured and accepted that kind of challenge has made a huge difference."

Yet after scoring in the 91st desperate minute of Wednesday's match, Donovan, 28, reverted to that exuberant child once again. He flung his arms high, raced toward the corner of the pitch and dove headfirst, sliding on his belly across the grass like a dolphin riding the surf. The U.S. bench emptied, and coaches and teammates came running and leaping and somersaulting from all directions, burying their diminutive leader in a mound of joy.

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 added 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."

Just five days earlier, Donavan spurred the comeback that led to the United States' 2-2 draw against Slovenia. His team trailing 2-0 at the half, Donovan keyed the resurgence with a goal in the 48th minute. Midfielder Michael Bradley added the tying score. And the Americans would have won, virtually clinching a spot in the knockout round last Friday, had Maurice Edu's goal in the 85th minute not been disallowed by a controversial foul called by referee Koman Coulibaly.

Wednesday against Algeria, the U.S. cause seemed hopelessly lost as one scoring opportunity after another was squandered. What looked like a game-winner by Clint Dempsey in the 20th minute was waived off by a questionable offside call. Jozy Altidore blasted a sitter into the heavens instead of the goal. And another try by Dempsey clanged off the post.

But 33 seconds into stoppage time, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard saved a shot by Algeria and heaved a long pass down the right sideline, hitting Donovan in full stride. Donovan deftly reined in the ball and kept driving down the pitch, then passed it to the onrushing Altidore. The big forward crossed to Dempsey, but the shot bounced off Algeria goalkeeper Rais M'Bolhi, who had been brilliant to that point.

Donovan, wisely trailing in case something went awry, suddenly was in position for the rebound. At that moment, Donovan said later, it was if time slowed down. The net was unguarded; the ball was at his feet. And he knocked it in for the biggest goal of his career.

"It was as much a reaction as anything," Donovan said. "But what went into all of that was a lot of hard work."

Then, out of the corner of an eye, Donovan saw teammate Stuart Holden come running from the bench with what seemed like 20 others in tow.

"It was something I will have embedded in my mind forever," Donovan said later. "We're a team. And as much as tonight was about the goal, there are a lot of things that happened besides the goal that made tonight possible."

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