2010: Landon Donovan's best year ... and the mighty goal

Our countdown of 2010's top 10 soccer stories and newsmakers -- from a Southern California slant -- continues.

  • Newsmakers/No. 1: Landon Donovan

America's biggest soccer star enjoyed his finest year in 2010.

Landon Donovan offered compelling evidence that he, indeed, is suited for the rigors of the European game; followed his Major League Soccer MVP campaign with a more complete performance; and emerged as one of the stars of the World Cup.

The 28-year-old forward/midfielder from Redlands (Redlands East Valley HS) has been pegged as something special since his teens. He won the Golden Ball, as top player, at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, was part of the U.S.'s semifinal team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and was a pivotal figure as the Americans reached the quarterfinals at the 2002 World Cup, the furthest the U.S. has progressed on the game's biggest stage since reaching the semifinals in 1930 (an achievement not nearly as impressive).

But he's climbed new heights since a poor outing at the 2006 World Cup, maturing into a true leader, taking on responsibilities he once avoided while devoting himself to his craft. He's been MLS's best player, by a significant margin, ever since.

Doubts about how he'd fare in a top European league -- remnants of his failures at Bayer Leverkusen and a disappointing loan stretch with Bayern Munich in 2009 -- were gone after a superb 10-week stint on loan with Everton in the English Premier League to start the year. He scored twice in 13 games, won a club Player of the Month honor and had legions of fans begging him to stay in Liverpool -- or, at the least, return.

After winning MLS's scoring title in 2008 and MVP award in 2009, he had arguably his finest league campaign in 2010, stepping back into midfield, where he was needed, and playing chief provider (his 16 assists led the league) and making a massive impact defensively. He led the Galaxy to the Supporters' Shield (as regular-season champion) and within one win of a second successive MLS Cup title-game appearance.

His year primarily will be remembered for his play at the World Cup. He was the Americans' top player -- and one of the best attackers in the tournament -- with an all-around performance marked by goals to help the U.S. rally for a 2-2 draw with Slovenia, to beat Algeria in the dying moments (securing the Group C title and a round-of-16 berth), and to forge a tie with Ghana before succumbing in overtime.

Donovan's international totals: 45 goals and 45 assists -- both U.S. records -- in 128 appearances.

  • Stories/No. 1: A mighty goal

Let's come to a quick agreement here. The three greatest goals in American soccer's long (back to the 1880s), rich (nine World Cups, and we're not counting the women) history:

  • Joe Gaetjens' header to beat England, 1-0, in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, at the 1950 World Cup.

  • Paul Caligiuri's “shot heard 'round the world” to beat Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain and send the U.S. to the 1990 World Cup, its first finals in 40 years.

  • Landon Donovan's sizzling stoppage-time finish to beat Algeria, give the U.S. the Group C title and push it into the knockout stage of last summer's World Cup in South Africa.

There's a romanticism around Gaetjens' goal -- nobody, practically, in the U.S. knew is happened, and then there's the Haitian forward's sad end, at the hands of dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier's secret police.

Caligiuri's goal might be the biggest: the real dividing line between the modern American game and what came before wasn't the World Cup five years later.

But Donovan's strike June 23 in Tshwane/Pretoria is the one that will be remembered.

The set up: The Americans had rallied to tie England on goalkeeper Robert Green's error, then rallied to beat Slovenia in their second game. Scratch that. The U.S. rallied for a 2-2 draw. The winning goal, a perfectly good finish by Maurice Edu, was waved off by Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, one of the most controversial refereeing decisions in a tournament defined in part by poor officiating.

Coulibaly's call turned the U.S. team into a cause celebré, turning even Americans ignorant in the ways of the game into fierce loyalists, and the whole country was watching when Donovan and Co. took on the Algerians, a game, it turned out, that had to be won.

The Yanks started slowly, as they had in their first two games, but gradually took charge of an entertaining encounter. Clint Dempsey's goal was denied by an offside flag, Jozy Altidore failed to finish when missing was more difficult, and Dempsey struck a post. Algerian goalkeeper Raïs M'Bolhi's expertise prevented the U.S. from making much of many opportunities.

And so as the clock passed 90 minutes and into stoppage, a 0-0 draw was set to eliminate both sides. But M'Bolhi couldn't hold onto an Altidore shot, and Donovan raced to the loose ball and fired it into the net.

As celebrations erupted in pubs and restaurants, theaters and workplaces across America, Donovan ran to the corner flag and slid head-first. Soon he was covered by teammates, at the bottom of a ecstatic dogpile.

The U.S. didn't win again -- Ghana prevailed in overtime in the round of 16 -- but that one moment, with Donovan hitting the net, then sliding toward the flag, encapsulated America's World Cup like none other. Ever.

  • Previously:

No. 2.: The big party … and the man in charge

No. 3: A wonderful campaign … and the big man up top

No. 4: End of a dream … and the Boss' finest hour

No. 5: Would-be hero … and Chivas USA's disaster

No. 6: Big breakthroughs … and So Cal in South Africa

No. 7: Sol sets … and Chivas USA's boss

No. 8: Fantastic frosh … and the coach's son

No. 9: A royal visit … and Charlie Naimo's rough year

No. 10: College soccer's big stars … and expansion