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Man of Steel

Donovan has played almost every minute of every World Cup qualifier, but more is expected of him

June 11, 2005|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY, Panama — Considering how determined he was to leave Germany earlier this year, Landon Donovan seems strangely focused on getting back there.

Then again, the World Cup is an irresistible lure.

In the 13 qualifying games the United States has played over the last year, Donovan has scored seven goals and assisted on nine others while playing 1,169 of the 1,170 minutes.

No other player has been on the field as long or has had as much impact on the team's march to Germany '06.

That's all well and good, but U.S. Coach Bruce Arena wants more.

"Consistency is the key for Landon," Arena said. "I hold him to a higher standard than he holds himself sometimes. Each and every game, he doesn't need to score goals, but he's got to have a major influence on our team. That's not asking too much of him.

"When games are tough, we need to see Landon. He can't be hiding. I think this year's been up and down. He's either been very good or just OK. And I'd like him to be good every game."

Donovan finds no fault in the criticism.

"No," he said, "because it's true. I get mad when people say things that aren't true or [talk about] what they don't know about. But that's absolutely true.

"I'm not stupid. I observe everything, including myself, and I know that my biggest problem is, I'm not consistent, I'm not always a factor in every game. That's something I'm striving to do, and he knows it.

"And it's partly his job too, and he knows that, to get me ready for every game, to have me ready to play. I think together we can make that happen."

With the final round of World Cup qualifying in the North and Central American and Caribbean (CONCACAF) region having reached the halfway point and a 10-week hiatus now in store, Galaxy fans might have expected Donovan to turn his full attention to his Major League Soccer team.

But there is the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July, with the U.S. playing Cuba, Canada and Costa Rica in the opening round and three more games if it advances to the July 24 final. After that, World Cup qualifying resumes Aug. 17.

The U.S. is certain to qualify for Germany -- barring some catastrophic collapse in its final five qualifiers -- and Arena is clear about what he wants Donovan to do between now and the World Cup.

"I think, as a player [he has to] be more consistent and really dedicate himself to being the best player he can possibly be, both in MLS and with the national team," Arena said.

"He's got to be careful that he doesn't allow his environment to hold him back a little bit. He knows what it takes to perform in a World Cup and where he needs to be."

By environment, Arena means not only the luxurious lifestyle that Donovan, 23, and his girlfriend, actress Bianca Kajlich, enjoy in their new Manhattan Beach home, but also the comparatively less demanding world of MLS.

"He could probably not play that well and get away with it," Arena said of Donovan's MLS play. "But we need more out of him. He knows. We've talked about some of the things he's got to continue to work on and get better at."

There is no strain in the relationship between player and coach. Donovan's ambitions include not only qualifying for the World Cup but winning it, and he is open to learning everything that will help him achieve that goal.

"Landon's never a problem," Arena said. "Now that he's got what he wants in life, he's got to take advantage of it."

Donovan has to answer to two masters -- Arena and Galaxy Coach Steve Sampson -- but said what they ask of him does not differ that much.

"It's not night and day," he said. "Steve's pretty demanding too. Steve's told me, 'I think you're a great player but I know you can be better.' I want that. I don't want a guy saying, 'You're great! You're great!' all the time."

With the Galaxy, Donovan is a forward who also does some playmaking. With the U.S., he is a playmaking midfielder who also scores.

"It's a little bit different," he said about his Galaxy job. "For one, I play a different role on the field. But I think they [Arena and Sampson] both expect me to make plays in the game. That's what I expect of myself. That's what I'm good at and that's how I have to play for teams to be successful."

Arena says he pays little attention to Donovan's role with the Galaxy.

"They're always different environments, your club team and your national team," he said. "I've never even discussed with Landon what his role is, what he's supposed to be doing there....

"As far as Steve's concerned, it's simply about the amount of time Landon will be away [from the Galaxy] over the next couple of months. That's the only thing we've discussed."

In only five years on the national team, Donovan already has become the fourth-leading goal scorer in U.S. history, behind Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride and Joe-Max Moore.

He is also second on the all-time list for assists, behind Galaxy teammate Cobi Jones.

He also has two MLS titles to his name from his four years with the San Jose Earthquakes, but the ambitions burn fiercely.

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