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Mar 25, 2007

Donovan embraces the challenge against Ecuador

TAMPA, Fla. -- To Landon Donovan's many critics, Sunday's 3-1 victory over Ecuador proved nothing. Meaningless friendlies, even ones that contain hat tricks like the one Donovan notched, are easy to dismiss. But when you combine Sunday's performance with his play last month against Mexico, you begin to get the feeling that perhaps the American captain has emerged from last summer's World Cup funk, and is now truly ready to lead the U.S. national team to better things.

Yes, we've seen this kind of performance from Donovan before, only for him to crumble once the stage got bigger and the lights brighter. But the vibe emanating from Donovan these days feels different. Last summer, Donovan's play on the field and his body language off it practically screamed, "I'm not ready for this." But now, the Los Angeles attacker exudes a rare contentment that says, "There is nothing to be afraid of," and given his three clinically taken goals Sunday, it's easy to see that his play is completely free of worry.

"At the end of the World Cup, as bad as that was for me personally, I feel like I learned a lot from it and I think I grew up a lot," Donovan said. "I got married this offseason. That helped me grow up, and I'm now embracing a leadership role. I used to say, 'I want to be a leader, I want to be a leader,' but it's not good enough to say it. You have to show it."

Donovan did that and more Sunday, delivering two long-range blasts that were sandwiched around a solo break midway through the second half. But it's also worth noting that Donovan had plenty of help, especially from old San Jose Earthquake teammate Brian Ching.

A tactical change by coach Bob Bradley at halftime saw Michael Bradley come in for ineffective Eddie Johnson, with Bradley setting up shop in midfield alongside Benny Feilhaber and Donovan moving to forward. And once Donovan was paired up top with his old comrade, the difference in the U.S. attack was obvious. Ching's holdup play had been solid from the get-go, despite getting his nose bloodied shortly before halftime. But when the Americans began playing into his feet more, it opened up the offense, and it was the Hawaiian's superb through ball to Donovan that saw him tally the game-winner.

"A lot of good, talented players can't play that ball," Donovan said of Ching's assist. "People think of Ching as a big man who doesn't know how to play and create space and create opportunities, but what a great ball."

For Ching, it was a question of adopting the old bromide Clint Eastwood's character, Dirty Harry, made famous: A man has to know his limitations.

"I'm not going to dribble by anybody, so I leave that up to [Donovan]," Ching said. "I give him the ball, and get in the box."

The switch also gave U.S. fans a chance to see a central midfield combination of Feilhaber and Bradley, and the duo acquitted themselves very well. Feilhaber showed off his range of passing as well as surprising strength on the ball. Bradley's insertion helped lock down the middle and was a major reason Ecuador's attack found the going tougher in the second half.

Given how fragile the back line looked in the first half, the switch was as timely as it was necessary. The central duo of Jimmy Conrad and Oguchi Onyewu looked completely out of sync as they struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Ecuador forwards Carlos Tenorio and Felipe Caicedo. A lack of positional discipline -- in which too many players were piling forward -- created problems as well, all of which were fixed at halftime by Bob Bradley.

"We reminded our guys that against good, strong, fast players, you have to move your feet a little bit better," Bradley said. "You can't just make one stab at the ball because then they're able to use their arms to hold you off and they can get away from us. I think the individual discipline of the defenders in the second half was better."

And Donovan's performance was even better than that. The challenge, of course, is to deliver again when the stakes are raised, but at least now Donovan appears ready to embrace that challenge rather than recoil from it.

Player Ratings:

Tim Howard, 6 -- Some big saves were balanced by shaky decision-making and handling, especially when a mix-up with Onyewu in the ninth minute saw him handle the ball outside of his box. This led to a needless free kick and what should have been a booking. It was a solid showing, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

Carlos Bocanegra, 4 -- Struggled to account for Luis Valencia on the left side, but had his share of vital tackles. Having Beasley on his side helped him a great deal. Is he really the best option at left back?

Jimmy Conrad, 5 -- Spent the first 30 minutes trying to figure out where the Ecuador attackers were coming from, and had difficulty coping with the pace of Tenorio and Caicedo. But an improved second half saw him deliver a more composed performance.

Oguchi Onyewu, 4 -- Another guy who struggled early, and lost Caicedo on Ecuador's goal. His touch was below average as well, but he was commanding in the air, per usual. One can only hope it was a lack of familiarity with Conrad that led to his subpar play.

Steve Cherundolo, 5 -- Average performance, but he also didn't get much help defensively from right-side partner Dempsey. Like many of his backline teammates, it took way too long for the Bundesliga veteran to get going, but the second half was much better.

DaMarcus Beasley, 6 -- Gave the Americans some tireless -- and badly needed -- defensive work during his team's first-half struggles. He also got into the attack, and his fine assist on Donovan's last goal capped off a solid performance.

Benny Feilhaber, 7 -- Aside from the odd giveaway, his distribution was excellent. His defense needs work, but he still had some vital tackles that stopped some Ecuadorean forays in their tracks.

Landon Donovan, 9 -- A brilliant day all around for the U.S. attacker. Not only has his nose for goal returned, but his movement off the ball was outstanding.

Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Displayed his trademark attacking verve, but only in flashes. His defense left plenty to be desired, as he left Cherundolo on his own more than a few times.

Eddie Johnson, 3 -- Is there no end to this guy's slump? Johnson showed some decent movement off the ball, but most of the U.S. attacks died with him. Even when presented with a wide-open chance in the 15th minute, he blasted it over.

Brian Ching, 7 -- The Hawaiian's holdup play was outstanding, and his assist on Donovan's second goal was a thing of beauty. If Donovan is going to play forward, Ching should be the first option to partner him up top.

Subs:

Michael Bradley, 6 -- His introduction at the start of the second half shored up the middle. Was he scintillating? No, but he did what was needed, which consisted of breaking up attacks and making the simple pass.

Brian Mullan, 4 -- Didn't see much of the ball, but the game was already won.

Jonathan Spector, 5 -- His failure to be on the same page as his fellow defenders in the 82nd minute led to one opportunity for Ecuador, but he defused it himself, so no harm done. His aerial presence helped seal the victory.

Taylor Twellman, 4 -- Provided good energy but little else. His holdup play was okay, but it wasn't at the same level as Ching's.

Justin Mapp, NR -- Will likely get more time Wednesday versus Guatemala.

Brian Carroll, NR -- Will return to D.C. United for the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.