PRETORIA, South Africa -- Landon Donovan tried to recall early Wednesday evening exactly how he'd saved his nation's pride, less than a half hour before, in the split second of a historical soccer game that was just about to expire. But he couldn't.
"I'll have to look at it," he said of the most-famous goal in U.S. soccer history, sitting at a dais with his chin resting in one hand, in a voice so soft it was made audible only by a microphone.
Instead, the greatest soccer player the United States has produced admitted that his mind was cluttered with all that he'd been through since the last time he played in this be-all soccer tournament called the World Cup.
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There was the public row he got himself into last summer with the world's most-popular soccer star, David Beckham, when Beckham returned to Los Angeles to play with Donovan's MLS team.
There was his very public split last July from his actress wife Bianca Kajlich.
There was the public flogging he got after being the designated leader of the 2006 U.S. World Cup team that fell flat on its face in Germany.
"I've been through a lot the last four years," Donovan said looking forlornly into space as he failed to fight back another stream of tears, prompting his coach, Bob Bradley, sitting at his side to pat him encouragingly on the back.
"I'm so glad it culminated in this way," Donovan said of scoring his team's first game-winner of the tournament, which also catapulted it to a knockout-round game on Saturday against Ghana. "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."
Donovan didn't just complete the rehabilitation of his reputation on the soccer pitch with his boot that topped Algeria 1-0 at a rousing Loftus Versfeld Stadium, heavily populated by his countrymen. Donovan, maybe more importantly, also redeemed his soul.
"This couldn't have happened to a better guy," said Donovan's teammate since they both were 16 years old, DaMarcus Beasley.
Indeed, the kiss Donovan blew during a television interview in the immediate aftermath of the match was to the woman from whom he split.
From the perch I've had over the years watching Donovan as a player, I'm not going to pretend to know him as a person. But I've never heard the people who run the organization for which he's dedicated much of his life say anything but the best of things about him, which isn't always the case for an athlete of Donovan's stature. I'll testify, too, that you'd be hard-pressed to find someone on the outside who has had to deal with Donovan that would say he's been anything other than accommodating. I'd even second that myself.
It was unfortunate that Donovan was handed the bag of overweight expectations for the U.S. World Cup team four years ago. He was just 24. He was merely coming into his own. He hadn't even proved himself on the sport's brightest stage anymore than U.S. teams that came before him.
But what did we know, or care? The team failed and it was Donovan's fault, many decided, and he would have to live with that until we paid attention to this World Cup event again.
Then we wondered how he could tell off the biggest import from England to the U.S. since The Beatles, the soccer rock star Beckham who rejoined Donovan on the L.A. Galaxy after a lackluster showing the season before. What we didn't realize was that indicated Donovan's maturity that came to buoy the U.S. World Cup team on Wednesday.
"He's a big enough character that he can speak his mind now," Beasley explained. "It doesn't matter who it is, even though, obviously, it was Beckham. He's the captain so if he sees something that's not fit he's going to say something."
Francisco Torres learned as much in dramatic fashion in the U.S.'s second game. During a stop in the action, Donovan appeared to upbraid Torres for his poor play and then shoved him hard in what looked like an effort to spur him.
"He's a leader now," Beasley said of his longtime teammate and frequent roommate. "He's someone you look to as the star of the team. He accepts that role. He knows he's someone everyone looks to to get a goal or assist at the end of the game. He accepts that role."
He wields it too. It was his early second half goal against Slovenia that energized his teammates and helped bring them to a draw after trailing 2-0. He even added an assist on the tying goal.
Wednesday, Donovan merely exercised U.S. Soccer's demons as well as his own.
Until Donovan broke down field in a mad rush and got the last boot on a ball the Algerian keeper Rais Bolhi, who'd been brilliant for 89 minutes, couldn't handle, the U.S. had never garnered even a single point in a critical third opening-round World Cup game. But Donovan got the team a win and the three points that went with it to ensure the U.S. colors would fly in the Round of 16.
"Clint [Dempsey] did a good job to get in front of the goalie and it just bounced there," Donovan said of the ball he netted. "Time kind of stopped. You can't miss from there."
The head of U.S. Soccer Sunil Gulati stopped to tell me afterward that there couldn't have been a better ending for the organization than to have Donovan, as its bright face for so many years now, with the ball on his foot in that 90th minute and successfully save the team's fortunes. Donovan's friend Beasley said the same.
"He's a guy who, when he walks in the room, you respect him because you know how he is as a person," Beasley said. "He's a great guy. I'm just proud ... to see him really, really excel.
"He's a star again."
In all of our eyes and, hopefully, in his own.