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Donovan on verge of another milestone

When a player makes his 100th national-team appearance, it's usually the cue to celebrate a successful international career. The peaks are highlighted, and any recriminations, like the crazy uncle at a wedding, are ushered into the background.

Yet as Landon Donovan looks set to reach a century of caps Wednesday against England, his status as one of the more polarizing figures in American soccer remains intact, guaranteeing that the milestone will be met with as much derision as cheering.

When an 18-year-old Donovan made his debut on Oct. 25, 2000, against bitter rival Mexico, no such controversy was on the horizon. The game took place at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of 61,072 fans, "60,000 of which were probably cheering for Mexico," Donovan recalled. The young forward began the match on the bench, but a first-half injury to Chris Henderson saw Donovan make an unexpected entrance.

"It was so much better that it happened that way, because I didn't have time to think about it," said Donovan, now 26. "I was just thrown in, and then instincts took over."

Those instincts saw him score the first goal of the game in what became a 2-0 win, and it wasn't the last time that Donovan tormented his southern neighbors, either. He scored the clinching goal in another 2-0 victory in the second round of the 2002 World Cup. And last summer, Donovan netted a penalty to lead the U.S. to a 2-1 triumph over Mexico in the final of the Gold Cup.

Adding to Donovan's impressive international résumé is the fact that earlier this year, he scored his 35th career international goal against Sweden, breaking Eric Wynalda's long-standing mark.

But along the way, Donovan has given his detractors plenty of ammunition. His failure to stick with German club Bayer Leverkusen on two occasions, his anonymous performance at the 2006 World Cup, and his apparent contentment with playing in MLS are cited as proof that Donovan is an underachiever with no ambition.

The weight of such expectations -- and the accompanying criticism -- is something that the Redlands, Calif., native hasn't always worn well. But as Donovan prepares for his third run at a World Cup, he appears to be embracing the entirety of his career, both good and bad, and examining his experiences rather than burying them.

"That [criticism], it didn't help at the time, but in the long run, it was good for me because I don't think I would have figured it out and learned otherwise," said Donovan. "Now I'm applying that all the time. It doesn't mean that every time I'm on the field it's going to be perfect. But it does mean that every time I'm on the field, I'm giving myself a chance to be successful, whereas in the past, that wasn't always the case."

Among the lessons that Donovan has taken to heart is the importance of off-field matters, including his diet, getting enough rest, and his mental preparation. Finding the right time to ease off the pedal also has paid dividends.

"I'm just trying to become more of a professional," Donovan said. "It doesn't mean you're overboard crazy, every second of the day, where you're watching games and watching tape and working out. But everything I do now on a daily basis is getting me ready for either the next day of training or the next game. The good news is that I'm seeing an immediate payoff, and that's encouraging."

That's putting it mildly. The Los Angeles forward, who has nine goals and six assists for the Galaxy already this season, appears set to obliterate his personal single-season bests. And he's been at the heart of the national team's newfound resilience on the road, helping the U.S. fashion a three-game winning streak.

That explains the distinct eagerness in Donovan's voice these days. Though for most players, 100 caps signals the beginning of the end, it's a mark that the U.S attacker plans to fly right by. The buzz he feels when donning the U.S. jersey is just as great now as it was in 2000, albeit in a different way.

"It's exciting for me because there is so much more for me to do," Donovan said about his international career. "I can be challenged so much more, and that's what I like about it now."

Even then, Donovan probably still will have his detractors. But it's just as likely he'll also hear more cheers.

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

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