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A lightning strike ; Dramatic score puts away Algeria

First came the goal, then came the celebration.

Then came the tears.

After lifting the U.S. soccer team to the most dramatic and one of the most important victories in its history Wednesday, Landon Donovan broke down briefly at a postgame news conference.

"I've been through a lot in the past four years," Donovan said. "I'm so glad it culminated this way. It makes me believe in good in the world and if you try to do things the right way it's good to see it get rewarded."

Donovan's goal, a minute into stoppage time, gave the U.S. a 1-0 victory over Algeria in a game they had to win to avoid elimination from the World Cup and advanced to the knockout stage. And it capped a gutsy performance by a team that refused to quit.

After missing one chance after chance for more than 90 minutes, the U.S. got its final break when goalkeeper Tim Howard made a stop seconds after regulation time had expired. He then whipped the ball up to Donovan racing down the right wing on a counterattack.

Donovan fed Jozy Altidore deep in the Algerian side, but Altidore's cross to Clint Dempsey hit Demspey's foot at about the same time Algerian keeper Rais M' Bolhi did.

With M'Bolhi, who played a magnificent game, on the ground, Donovan, trailing the play smartly, was able to swoop in and knock the loose ball into the back of the net for the win.

"Hands down the biggest moment of my career," said Donovan, who grabbed the ball out of the back of the net and kicked it into the stands.

"Somebody just got a nice souvenir," he said.

Playing before a crowd of 35,827 that included former President Bill Clinton, who was sitting with FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, the two sides battled on even terms through as hard-fought a match as any in this World Cup.

The Americans lost one goal on a questionable offside call, another to an inexplicably bad shot by Altidore and a third chance, early in the second half, when Dempsey hit the post with one shot, then knocked the rebound past an open net.

Yet they didn't give up, despite the fact Dempsey took a hand to the face that required four stitches to close and defender Jay DeMerit suffered a cut in his mouth that required five stitches.

Clinton spent more than a half-hour in the team's changing room after the game, during which time he repeatedly told the team how proud he was of them, said a team official.

For Donovan the winning goal spelled redemption as much as it spelled victory. His lowest point as a professional came after the World Cup in 2006 when the U.S. failed to make it through to the second round and Donovan came in for much of the criticism following three below-par performances. Then last July he went through personal pain when he separated from his actress wife, Bianca Kajlich.

"Those experiences can harden you and can help you grow if you learn from them and if you look at it the right way," he said.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley, who patted Donovan tenderly on the shoulder as he cried, said his player matured after accepting his role as a leader on the pitch. "I think these kind of challenges came at a good time for him, and he's never shied away from challenges," he said.

Coming into Wednesday's match, which was also a must-win game for Algeria, the Americans had never won a third game in a World Cup and had gone out in group play five times in seven tournaments.

A draw would have sent them packing this time, too.

It is the first time since 1930 that the U.S. won its World Cup group. On Saturday, the U.S. will play the second qualifier from Group D, Ghana, in the Round of 16.

England also qualified out of Group C, defeating Slovenia, 1-0, in Port Elizabeth.

England will play Germany.

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