With the U.S. perhaps three minutes from elimination Wednesday, Donovan brought the ball upfield on a counterattack and Jozy Altidore's shot on the breakaway was tipped by Clint Dempsey into goalkeeper Rais Bolihi. The rebound went to Donovan, who kicked it in from about 8 yards for one of the biggest goals in U.S. soccer history.
"I've been through a lot in the last four years," Donovan said half an hour after the end, crying and his voice cracked. "I'm so glad it culminated this way. When you try to do things the right way, it's good to get rewarded."
While he was speaking underneath the stands in the interview room, American fans were still in the stadium, waving flags and blowing vuvuzelas in celebration.
The win, the first World Cup victory for the U.S. in eight years, gave the Americans first place in Group C. With just its fifth shutout in World Cup play, the United States (1-0-2) won a group for the first time since 1930 and will face the runner-up in Group D on Saturday.
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. Donovan was in tears when the game ended and the United States had moved into the second round.
"Clint made a good run in the middle, the ball fell to me ... time kind of stopped," Donovan said. "You can't miss from there."
As the final whistle sounded, the U.S. bench raced onto the field and piled on top of the players on the far sideline. At midfield, Steve Cherundolo and Jay DeMerit collapsed to the ground. They all bearhugged Donovan, who with his fourth World Cup goal tied Bert Patenaude (1930) as the American leader.
"That was a really special feeling," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said. "These guys put a lot into it, they never quit.
"We're proud. We finished first in our group. Five points, didn't lose a match. So we're ready."
As the team returned to the sideline, goalkeeper Tim Howard bounced up and down in elation. Benny Feilhaber took a water bottle and sprayed his teammates, champagne-like.
"We're not done yet," Donovan said. "We believe, man. We're alive, baby."
England (1-0-2), which beat Slovenia moments earlier, also had five points but finished second because the U.S. scored four goals to two for the English. 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.
Until Donovan's goal, it appeared the officiating would again be the focus.
Dempsey put the ball in the net in the 21st minute off the rebound of Herculez Gomez's shot. But the goal was called offside, just as Maurice Edu's late goal was disallowed against Slovenia last week, a score that would have given the Americans a victory. Replays appeared to show Dempsey was onside.
Dempsey had another great chance in the 57th minute when Michael Bradley stole the ball and sent Altidore streaking down the right side. Altidore crossed, but Dempsey's hit the goalpost. He shot wide on the rebound.
Howard earned the first shutout in World Cup play for the U.S. since the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the second round in 2002.
The U.S. kept up its pattern of good and bad World Cups. The Americans were knocked out in the first round in 1990, 1998 and 2006, but went to the second round in 1994 and reached the quarterfinals in 2002.
With former President Bill Clinton watching from the stands at Loftus Versfeld, a pro-American, vuvuzela-blowing crowd filled the old rugby stadium. Donovan and Dempsey all had numerous chances in the first half but either misfired or were stopped by Bolhi.
Bob Bradley revamped his lineup in an effort to add speed. Jonathan Bornstein, the American player most maligned by fans, started at left back. Captain Carlos Bocanegra shifted from the left to the center, with the coach sitting center back Oguchi Onyewu. Edu started in central midfield in place of Jose Torres and Gomez, who made the World Cup roster in a surprise, started at forward for Robbie Findley, suspended for yellow card accumulation.
Algeria was making its third World Cup appearance following first-round elimination in 1982 and 1986. Algeria was the fourth African team to exit the first World Cup on African soil, with Cameroon, Nigeria and host South Africa already eliminated.
"I think that Africa is on the right road," coach Rabah Saadane said. "What we need in our national teams and squads is stability and a lot of discipline, and I think in a few years time, Africa will have among the best teams in the world."
Clinton congratulated the U.S. players in the locker room after the game.
The U.S. had eight shots on goal to three for Algeria, and the Americans were on the edge until the very end.
Finally, though, Donovan connected.