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Because of his skill and savvy, Donovan will be asked to lead by example for US team

It's unclear just when Landon Donovan evolved from The Kid to The Man on the US soccer team. Maybe it was when he scored four goals against the Cubans in 2003. Or when he bagged a couple against Costa Rica last year. Or when coach Bruce Arena handed him the captain's armband for four World Cup qualifying matches.

What's beyond doubt, though, is that when the fifth-ranked Americans take the field a week from tomorrow for their Cup opener against the Czech Republic in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, the 24-year-old Donovan will be center stage. ``It's pretty clear that he is our guy," says teammate Josh Wolff.

Nobody on the squad has played more minutes, scored more goals, or dished out more assists during the past quadrennium. Nobody is more versatile or draws more attention from rival defenders. Donovan is the one man of the 23 that the Americans can't replace. Indispensability, though, brings uncommon responsibility.

``Landon understands he's a gifted player and with that there's the pressure of performing each and every day," says Arena. ``He knows he's a guy we have to count on for 90 minutes, not just a couple of plays every game."

Those couple of plays, usually in huge matches, have been Donovan's calling card. It was his late, daring run into the box against the Jamaicans in Foxborough that drew a penalty and led to Joe-Max Moore's winning boot that got the United States into the 2002 Cup. It was Donovan's diving header that finished off the Mexicans and put the yanquis into the quarterfinals, their best showing in 72 years.

Now those highlight-clip moments, once celebrated, have become anticipated.

``People have come to expect that and they've come to appreciate that," acknowledges Donovan. ``They want me to do that. They want me to get the ball out and run at people and make things happen. That's when I'm at my best."

Four years ago in Korea, he wasn't even sure he'd get on the field. He was the squad's second-youngest player (DaMarcus Beasley is roughly three months his junior) and had been a national-team regular for less than a year. ``It was still very unclear whether I was going to play or not, all the way up to the first game," says Donovan, who watched the 1998 Cup on TV during high school math class.

Donovan ended up starting at forward alongside veteran Brian McBride as the US shocked favored Portugal, 3-2, and jump-started its startling run to the final eight. Along the way, Donovan started all five matches, played all but 16 minutes, and ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The experience, he says, was a blurry dream.

``We were there a long time, but it was gone like that," says Donovan, who was back on the field for the San Jose Earthquakes less than 12 hours after returning from Asia, ``and I was home thinking, `What the hell just happened?' "

There was no doubt, at least in Arena's mind, that the 2002 Cup was Donovan's accelerated apprenticeship, that he'd be fast-forwarded to a leadership role for the next time. The question was whether Donovan understood that. For a while, he didn't seem to.

``At times it was like: Why? I'm not that good," Donovan says. ``Then you come to the realization that he believes that I can be that good and you have no choice but to believe him. Now it's up to me to do it, but I've had enough games and experiences to know that I can make a difference at this level and I need to do that."

What he most needed to do, Donovan realized, was be a professional on a daily basis. That meant taking care of his body -- nutrition, rest, therapy. Pushing himself hard in practice. Sharpening his focus for matches. And shouldering more of a leadership role.

``It's just doing your job," Donovan says. ``When I initially came in, it was all fun and almost no work. Then you have to realize, especially at this level, that it is a job. It's fun to hang out on the side and get the ball and dribble at people, but you better be in there working your [butt] off helping to defend, too, or else no one's going to respect you. From there, realizing that it's work, you try to make it fun again."

What's decidedly not fun is sitting, which is what Donovan was doing for most of his brief tenure last year with Bayer Leverkusen in the German Bundesliga before he returned to Major League Soccer. ``With the German mentality, it's not that surprising they put him on a back burner for a while," muses Arena. ``If Landon had it to do over again, I think he'd handle it better."

All Donovan knew at the time, though, was that he was miserable.

``I felt worn down and I felt exhausted and I hadn't even played that much," he recalls. ``Life was wearing on me."

It would have been different, he concedes, if he'd been playing regularly.

``I would have stayed, absolutely," says Donovan, who'd signed with Leverkusen at 16 and gathered cobwebs then. ``The idea of leaving would have never crossed my mind. But I had this recurring dream of `here we go again.' That just bothered me."

So he went back home to Southern California, to his family, his fiancee (actress Bianca Kajlich), and the Los Angeles Galaxy, whom he led to the MLS title (over the Revolution) and his third championship ring. Along the way, he played in eight of the 10 matches of the final round of Cup qualifying, scoring or setting up seven of the 16 goals and establishing himself beyond question as the team's go-to guy.

``I don't think it's bad," says Donovan. ``People can debate, but I don't have an issue with it. I'm very in tune with what it all is and what's expected of me. I know that it's not too much, and I know that I can't just loll around on the field and expect everything to be fine."

Accepting the challenge
If he delivered a so-so performance four years ago, it could be dismissed as rookie callowness. Now, it raises eyebrows.

``I have no problem being told I'm not playing well," Donovan says. ``I know. I see it too. It's not like a revelation. I'm not here to fool anyone. What you guys are seeing, I'm seeing, too."

With time and experience and maturity has come self-awareness.

``I know what I am now and I know what I'm not," Donovan says. ``I know what I can do and what I can't do and I take advantage of my strengths more. I'm not going to outmuscle anyone. I know that. I'm probably not going to jump over anyone and score a header. I'm not the best defender on the team by far."

But Donovan is a natural finisher and a creative passer who can step in as playmaker if captain Claudio Reyna isn't around. That will make him a marked man against the Italians and Czechs, just as he was against the Mexicans and Costa Ricans during qualifying.

``If you want to shut me down and have two people follow me around, there's six other guys who are going to make you pay," Donovan says. ``I hope that happens, because it means you're going to get killed somewhere else. That's a big advantage for us. It's not one person who makes this team go."

This time, though, Donovan is the primary person and he accepts that.

``Landon carries that burden on his shoulders," says Wolff. ``He welcomes it, and that's probably why he thrives on it."

Last time was a magical mystery tour, which made it easier. John O'Brien's shock goal four minutes into the Portugal game struck Donovan as a cool oddity.

``I was, `Oh, a goal, that's exciting, here we go,' " he remembers. ``I never thought, `If we just get through 85 more minutes and don't allow a goal, we're going to win.' That youthfulness and inexperience is good because you just keep playing."

Donovan is four years older now and has 50 more matches' worth of international experience, which can be a mixed blessing. Sometimes, you don't want to have sampled soccer's Tree of Knowledge. The World Cup is no apple pie.

``There's an advantage to not knowing what's coming," Donovan says. ``But there's a huge advantage to having played in a World Cup."

After the last one, Donovan found himself an instant celebrity, chatting on Letterman, having his Manhattan Beach house featured on MTV's ``Cribs." This time, with the Cup being televised in the United States during normal waking hours (as opposed to the 1:30 a.m. starts from Korea), Donovan could become America's favorite summer face.

No matter how well he plays in Germany, he says, he'll rejoin the Galaxy when he returns, even if European clubs offer him bagfuls of euros.

``Could I turn around, hypothetically, after the World Cup and be like, `All right, see you guys, thanks for the couple of years?' " Donovan says. ``That's not me."

But what if the man formerly known as Kid has a monster Cup, wins the Golden Ball that goes to the most outstanding player, and leads his mates to an unimaginable triumph?

``I'd just retire," Landon Donovan figures.

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