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Mar 26, 2007

Donovan's performance ranks with the best

U.S. soccer fans are rightly abuzz about Landon Donovan's three goals Sunday against Ecuador.

His man-of-the-match performance is significant for two reasons. On its own, a hat trick against a World Cup finalist will always be a hot topic, of course.

But Donovan's afternoon was also a biggie because everybody connected to U.S. soccer wants badly for the versatile attacker to consistently realize his seemingly boundless potential. They see the speed, the feet, the bursts, all the commanding talent and the championship edge here and there. But the frustrating gaps in between have always dogged Donovan in the bigger picture.

Fans and critics want to consistently get the version of Donovan that is confident and engaged -- like the one that chewed up and staggered the Ecuadorans at Raymond James Stadium in the 3-1 U.S. victory.

So where does that hallmark performance rank on the list of all-timers around the U.S. senior men's national team? Let's look:

1. Kasey Keller vs. Brazil, 1998 -- Only the most die-hard U.S. soccer supporters were watching on that February night as Kasey Keller stacked one remarkable save on top of another against the flustered Brazilians, building perhaps the most remarkable single U.S. performance ever. Romario (still a striking heavyweight at the time) called Keller's 10-save masterwork in the CONCACAF Gold Cup the best night of goalkeeping he had ever witnessed. It's worth a YouTube search to see for yourself.

2. Claudio Reyna vs. Mexico, 2002 -- Playing the important World Cup second round match away from his natural central midfield position, Reyna removed all doubt about whether he was just a nice, technical player. With equal graft and skill, he set up a goal and was rugged in patrolling the right side while helping steer the United States past a shocked Mexico 2-0 in Jeonju, South Korea.

3. Eddie Johnson vs. Panama, 2004 -- Yes, the match was already won that night at RFK. And, yes, the young striker was making those hard runs into the penalty area against a bedraggled bunch of overmatched Panamanians in the game's final 25 minutes. Still, Johnson's hat trick was stunning just the same, especially since it was just his second cap. And the breakout performance came in a World Cup qualifier. He remains the only U.S. player to record a hat trick coming off the bench.

4. Claudio Reyna vs. Mexico, 1995 -- The future U.S. captain owned the day with a goal and two assists; in addition, the victory at RFK Stadium in D.C., was meaningful because his team absolutely hammered an A-list version of Mexico 4-0. It would take a little longer, but a momentous shift in continental balance was on. The night was also significant because it was Reyna's breakout performance in the national jersey.

5. Brad Friedel vs. South Korea, 2002 -- The big American keeper stretched brilliantly to save a penalty kick and turned away several other efforts from the hosts in the pulsating cauldron that was the 60,000-seat stadium in Daegu. Friedel's night included a series of stunning saves before finally conceding one 12 minutes from time. The 1-1 tie became crucial in seeing the Americans through to the second round (and the historic elimination-match triumph over Mexico.)

6. Alexi Lalas and Marcelo Balboa vs. Colombia, 1994 -- It's hard to distinguish the better of the pair as the United States staggered the World Cup balance with a huge upset, ensuring an American second-round berth. The pairing was a central tour de force against Carlos Valderrama and a Colombian attack that was stubbornly determined to plow straight down the middle.

7. Landon Donovan vs. Ecuador, 2007 -- Here's the thing to remember about Sunday's three goals: those weren't tap-ins at the far post by the U.S. captain. Two of his three efforts were confident strikes from distance (that second rocket was particular dandy).

The other finish was calm and classy, the punctuation mark of a smart, slashing run through the middle. The only mitigating factor: It was a friendly. Otherwise, Donovan's memorable afternoon would rank even higher on the list.

8. Paul Caligiuri vs. Trinidad and Tobago, 1989 -- This may sound like a reach, since one moment of impact doesn't usually equate to landmark overall performance. But the defender's single strike -- the shot has its own campy nickname, after all, the "shot heard 'round the world" -- bore such tremendous weight in the big picture. That sun-obscured, uh, "blast," from long range in Port of Prince sent the United States into the 1990 World Cup, which added some vital world soccer cred prior to the U.S. host role in 1994.

9. Oguchi Onyewu vs. Mexico, 2005 -- This tremendous center back ensconced himself in the hearts of U.S. fans by standing up to, staring down and shutting out in- form Mexican striker Jared Borgetti. The 2-0 World Cup qualifier win moved coach Bruce Arena's men a step closer to Germany 2006. Plus, Gooch's alpha-dog night in Columbus during the September qualifier helped provide more evidence that the power center of CONCACAF now resided north, not south, of the border.

10. Landon Donovan vs. Italy, 2006 -- It's difficult to choose just one player from that heroic night in Kaiserslautern, when the nine-man U.S. team squeezed out a blood-and-guts 1-1 tie against the eventual World Cup champions. Donovan, absolutely tireless in chasing and closing vast amounts of midfield space, embodied the passion, commitment and emotion that stole the night. Just like the team, he had a dreadful overall tournament, but still proved he had a heart after that miserable World Cup opener. (Side note: Kasey Keller was huge in the match, too, and could have been singled out.)

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.