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Apr 12, 2006

Donovan aims high

CARY, N.C. -- The public address announcer at SAS Soccer Park barely had put the finishing touches on his announcement that Landon Donovan had become the United States' all-time assist leader than the American midfielder was reminded it was payback time. Donovan was taken down roughly by Jamaican defender Omar Daley just outside the left side of the U.S. penalty area in the 33rd minute on Tuesday night.

Donovan got up slowly. Like it or not, such treatment comes with the territory, especially when you can be so dangerous in enemy territory. "Whatever," Donovan said. "It happens. It's soccer." Like water off a duck's back. Donovan has become accustomed to becoming the focal point of the U.S. team -- on and off the field.

With Claudio Reyna struggling to come back from another injury, the U.S. national team has become Donovan's team.

The transformation began during World Cup qualifying in 2004 as Donovan averaged almost a point -- either a goal or an assist -- per match.

Last year U.S. coach Bruce Arena said he wanted Donovan to step up his game and become a team leader. Donovan not only did it but also embraced it.

In Tuesday night's 1-1 World Cup warm-up draw with Jamaica, Donovan wore No. 10 -- traditionally Reyna's number -- and was team captain -- Reyna's usual role.

"He responds well to the captain's armband," Arena said.

Indeed.

Donovan has flip-flopped between the midfield and forward without a complaint. He plays forward for the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS, and he plays a creative and attacking midfielder for the national team.

And he looked more comfortable as a center attacking midfielder (hint, hint Galaxy coach Steve Sampson).

No one has to remind U.S. coach Bruce Arena what he has, even if it took Donovan longer to find his game on a beautiful spring night.

"Just chronologically he's older," Arena said. "He's 24 years old and he has a lot of experience.

"Landon tonight -- remember, he hadn't played in the midfield since he last played with us [and he] has played forward with the Galaxy. So it took Landon a little bit of time to get back into that position again. ... I think it is more natural for him to play there or to play second forward. He needs [some] time. He doesn't have the fitness in the midfield you need to have. There are different fitness [levels] for midfielders than for forwards. It took Landon a little time to get into the game tonight."

Let's face it: You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that Donovan has to be at the top of his game in Germany come June for the U.S. to have any sort of chance to get out of the first round of the World Cup in one piece.

Being a leader could very well be the difference between making some history and advancing to the second round in a European-based World Cup or going home after the opening round.

Last week, I had the privilege of going one-on-one with Donovan for a half-hour.

I could tell he has become a much more mature person than the man-child we have known for years. He teased me about why I hadn't yet asked him a question about Freddy Adu -- which must be required by all sportswriters (yes, I eventually did, although I showed him it was at the bottom of my list). There was good-natured banter back and forth throughout the interview.

I asked him about his personal World Cup expectations. What he answered was telling.

"This is my expectation," he said. "I don't have to score four goals. I don't want to win the Golden Boot or the MVP. I want to be the best player on the field when we play -- for both teams. I think I'm capable of that. I think you know me. I'm not an egoist. I think I should hold myself to that standard. I know Bruce holds me to that standard. If I lead -- help lead -- I think we have a good chance of being successful. And that's what's important for me. Don't get me wrong. If I don't do that and we advance and win the World Cup, I'll be ecstatic. But, that's my goal personally, to be involved and be the best player on the field when I'm out there."

Donovan might not have been the best player on the field Tuesday night, but he certainly tried. He ran the American attack. The U.S. attack ran through him, whether it was attempting a free kick or sending in one of his 11 corner kicks.

During a 90-second stretch late in the match, Donovan took a long free kick from the right side that defender Chris Albright headed toward the goal, but a Jamaican player knocked it out of bounds off the end line. Donovan sprinted across the field to the left corner, and his corner kick also was knocked off the end line -- this time on the right side. So he raced to the right corner.

"Maybe that's what slowed me down," he quipped. "Tired me out, maybe."

As it turned out, it was a quickly taken free kick that gave the U.S. its lone goal.

Only seconds after Pat Noonan was fouled outside the left side of the penalty area, Donovan took a quick free kick. He sent the ball to Ben Olsen, who fired a low shot that deflected off goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts and into the far right corner in the 25th minute.

Donovan became the United States' all-time assist leader with 23, moving past L.A. Galaxy teammate Cobi Jones.

"I think too often we let teams off the hook," he said. "When you get fouled, there's a lot of times where you can put the ball down and play and teams are kind of walking about there. At this level, it can make a difference. Benny was sitting there. I looked at the ref and asked, 'Can I play?' He said yes. So I gave it to him."

Olsen is one of those players on the bubble. So anything positive can be used to sway Arena's mind.

"Landon [did] a great job realizing they were a little bit [disorganized] on their free kicks," he said. "They were scrambling for marks and no one picked me up and he played me a great ball."

As for the assist record, Donovan was told about it after the match.

"That's right," he said. "I forgot about that.

"It was Cobi before, right?"

Someone nodded yes. "I got it in less caps," he said, obviously knowing the right time to tease a teammate. "I'll tell him this week."

With the assist record his, Donovan is a sure bet to shatter Eric Wynalda's record of 34 goals. He has 25 and he's not even that age yet.

At one time, Donovan admitted, he was into his personal glory.

"When I was younger, it was, I want to score the goal and I want to get the applause and have the crowd cheering,'" he said. "You want to make people better and you want to help people. You want to help people at this stage, to make the team. I don't need to score."

Just being the best player on the field would suffice, nicely.

Player Ratings (on a scale of 1-10)
Tony Meola, 5 -- Didn't have much to do.

Chris Albright, 7 -- Good effort, had two near misses off headers.

Eddie Pope, 6 -- Encouraging performance after injury.

Frank Hejduk, 4 -- Inconsistent, slip almost costly near the end.

Steve Ralston, 4.5 -- Never found his rhythm before injury.

Ben Olsen, 6.5 -- Heady thinking on the goal, played well as holding midfielder.

Pablo Mastroeni, 5 -- Communication problems with Hejduk on Jamaican goal.

Landon Donovan, 6 -- Quick thinking led to goal; ran the show.

Pat Noonan, 5 -- Average.

Josh Wolff, 4.5 -- Could have been more dangerous.

Taylor Twellman, 6 -- Several good opportunities, but couldn't finish.

Substitutes:
Eddie Johnson, 4.5 -- Still hasn't found his form.

Brian Ching, 4 -- Bubble player whose bubble might have burst.

John O'Brien, 6.5 -- Could be the start of something big.

Clint Dempsey, 5.5 -- Solid in first game back after suspension.

Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for the New York Daily News, also is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He can be reached at Soccerwriter516@aol.com.