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Mar 28, 2007

U.S. team sees a more focused Donovan

FRISCO, Texas -- The stars and planets of the soccer solar system are lining up remarkably well for Landon Donovan these days.

Not only did the U.S. attacker record an impressive hat trick in the 3-1 victory over Ecuador on Sunday, he was then thrilled to discover that he had matched Brian McBride for second place in all-time U.S. Soccer goals leadership with 30.

And if that wasn't enough, his new wife called to remind Donovan that she was about to turn 30 the next day.

See? Thirty goals. New wife turning 30. Things are simply that swell in Landon Donovan's world right now.

Of course, the latest reminder that things weren't always tea and crumpets is never very far away. In fact, much of Donovan's current crackerjack form and good fortune traces back to a notorious low-water mark -- the 2006 World Cup.

Donovan once again will occupy a place in the starting 11 Wednesday night as the Americans face Guatemala outside Dallas. Donovan has five goals in three matches this year, helping interim boss Bob Bradley seed a 3-0 start, the business end of an increasingly strong case for landing the position permanently.

Still, Donovan has a deeper comprehension now of recent, darker days: the Americans' clumsy stumble through Germany 2006. He has absorbed how disappointing his performance and the team's collective misfire was for U.S. Soccer fans. In fact, understanding the scope of the calamity is now elevating Donovan into a better place.

During the event itself, isolated inside the U.S. camp, where everyone was trying to stay the positive course, he couldn't absorb the weight of it all. It didn't seem that bad.

"But afterward it was heavy," he said before the Pizza Hut Park friendly. "It was a lot. Something I had never dealt with. Something a lot of people on our team had never dealt with. Honestly, it was a little depressing for couple of weeks.

"It was hard to take. I've played this game since I was 5 because I love playing. I love having fun and enjoying it. All the sudden, I kind of got flipped on my head. You realize how much it means to other people, how much of a business it is, how let down people were. It was a lot to swallow."

So Donovan, striving to spin the misery into something productive, rededicated himself. Not just to making better passes or selecting better runs off the ball, but to the vital nuances of mental and physical preparation. He pays greater attention to the way he eats and rests. He spends more time concentrating on the match before kickoff. He has refined and sharpened his pregame routine.

Plus, his January marriage to actress Bianca Kajlich has created a settling effect. Just saying the word "wife," Donovan allows, makes him feel a bit more worldly and wise.

The results are evident. In fact, anyone paying attention noticed that Donovan had sharpened his focus by last fall as the MLS season neared completion. The attention that once drifted and created inconsistency -- the giant knock on Donovan for so long -- has been a more constant companion lately.

Donovan said since returning from Germany he might have misplaced that laser-lock for perhaps a match or two, but no more.

"Aside from that, the last 15 or so MLS games, and the [U.S.] games this year, even the scrimmage games, I've been completely tuned in. And it makes a difference."

The Donovan detractors remain steadfast. ESPN commentator Eric Wynalda took Donovan to task on Sunday's broadcast, criticizing his desire to concentrate on the Los Angeles Galaxy this year and the attacker's preference to participate in only one of the big U.S. tournaments this summer (the Gold Cup or Copa America). Wynalda called Donovan's request "an excuse" to abdicate a certain amount of national team responsibility.

Donovan had said earlier this month that he wanted to participate in as many Galaxy games as possible in 2007, that he wanted to help the club excel in not only the MLS regular season, but in U.S. Open Cup and SuperLiga contests, and even the high-profile friendlies on the calendar.

"That's his opinion," Donovan said of Wynalda. "That's what he gets paid to do. I don't get paid to have an opinion. I get paid to play soccer. I have to live my life, he doesn't."

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