Off the foot of Donovan, the United States defeated Algeria, 1-0, finishing atop Group C. The United States advances to the knockout stage, where it will play the second qualifier out of Group D, Ghana, on Saturday.
"Hands down the biggest moment in my career," said Donovan, who was in tears moments after the final whistle. "It's been a long journey these last four years and I'm shocked, and so proud of our guys. We kept going and we believed. People that know me closest know I've worked so hard for this moment. It's unbelievable. I know people back home will be watching. We aren't done yet."
Through much of the game, the U.S. seemed destined for frustration. In the second half alone, the team missed a half-dozen chances for a goal.
And as the clocked ticked toward a 0-0 tie, a result that would leave the United States a futile third place in Group C, the anxiety levels of many in the crowd inside Loftus Versfeld Stadium began to rise even as the temperature dropped.
When the 45-minute half ended with a 0-0 score, the officials added four minutes of stoppage time, and each passing second became more desperate.
Then, Donovan took an ambitious outlet pass from goalkeeper Tim Howard in the first minute of extra time.
Donovan pushed it ahead to forward Jozy Altidore, who had more open field than Algerian defenders in front of him. Altidore brought it down the right side, crossed it in front of the goal where Algerian keeper Raid M'Bolhi, as usual on Wednesday, stuffed Clint Dempsey's attempt.
But this time the ball bounded away from M'Bolhi and Donovan found himself with the ball at his foot, the goal in his sights, and the hopes of a nation on his shoulders.
Easily, Donovan slotted the ball into the back of the net.
"The ball kind of found the man," Donovan said. "Time kind of stopped; you can't miss from there."
When time started again, Donovan made like an airplane and sprinted to the left corner flag, where he dove headfirst toward the grass.
His teammates met him at the corner; the crowd danced in excitement.
Donovan's triumph on Wednesday reminded of the promises he made a month ago, when he spoke of his preparation for this World Cup moment.
"There's more responsibility," said Donovan on May 18, talking about South Africa. "In my opinion, there's also greater opportunity. I enjoy the challenge of that now. In 2006, I think, that became burdensome because I wasn't ready for it. Now, I'm ready for it. And I'm really excited for it."
On Wednesday, as the sun was setting on both the day and on the Americans' hopes inside a stadium 45 minutes north of Johannesburg, Donovan delivered a moment that seemed at least four years in the making.
"I've been on a long journey these last four years," Donovan explained before leaving the field. "We believe, man. We're alive!"
Contact staff writer Kate Fagan at 856-779-3844 or firstname.lastname@example.org.