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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

Landon Donovan is the potential game-changer for U.S. against Mexico

American national team has never beat Mexico in Mexico, but 'El Tri' should fear Donovan in Wednesday's match. He has the ability to change the game's outcome in a single play with a burst of speed.

August 11, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

Mexico fears no one.

That, at least, is the image that Coach Javier Aguirre and the players on Mexico's national soccer team like to project. Fans of "El Tri" feel the same way.

The truth is somewhat different. Mexico should fear Landon Donovan.

The Galaxy and U.S. national team forward's blazing acceleration and blistering shot are game-changers. He can beat anyone. Even Mexico. Even at Azteca Stadium.

On Wednesday afternoon, he will have the chance.

The U.S. has never defeated the Mexican national team in Mexico. That fact has been trotted out ever since the teams first played each other in 1934. The American record is an abysmal 0-22-1.

But statistics don't interest Donovan. Playing Mexico, he claims, is always enjoyable.

"The games are fun," he said. "They're intense. And the other thing is, I know them so well that there's also a comfort level. I know what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are. A lot of us do, and it helps."

Wednesday's match in Mexico City is a World Cup qualifier. If Mexico wins, it puts itself squarely back into contention for a place in next year's tournament in South Africa. If the U.S. wins, its ticket to the quadrennial world championship is all but booked.

Both teams have capable players throughout their lineup. In Donovan, though, the U.S. has one of the very few players on either side who can decide the outcome in a single play.

One burst of speed that shreds the Mexican defense, one dramatic volleyed goal such as the one he scored for the Galaxy at New England on Saturday, and the game can be won.

That's why Mexico should fear Donovan. It knows his potential.

The U.S. is 7-1-2 against Mexico in the 10 games that Donovan has played and 4-0 in games in which he has scored against Mexico.

A single goal has separated the teams in four of the six games they have played in Mexico City in the last quarter-century.

The U.S. is coming into the match at sold-out Azteca having learned valuable lessons at the Confederations Cup in South Africa in June and at the Gold Cup in the U.S. in July.

In South Africa, the U.S. was dismantled by Brazil and Italy before regrouping to defeat Egypt and Spain. It put Brazil on the ropes before losing, 3-2, in the final.

"I think for me the biggest thing I learned is that we can finally really compete at that level," Donovan said, "and not in a way where we have the fluke day where they hit the crossbar 10 times and blah, blah, blah. But we can really compete.

"It doesn't mean we're always going to beat teams like that, but we can give ourselves a realistic chance now, which is an incredible feeling for this team."

Donovan discounts the inconsistency of the Confederations Cup performances, claiming, for instance, that in the loss to Italy, the U.S. had played well but had been let down by individual errors.

"We made stupid mistakes and that hurt us," he said.

In last month's Gold Cup, Bradley rested his starters and purposely fielded a second-string team that still managed to reach the final, only to be taken apart, 5-0, by Mexico. All the goals came in the second half.

Donovan, the all-time U.S. scoring leader with 41 goals in 115 international games, watched the debacle from his home in Manhattan Beach.

"I thought the first half we played pretty well," he said. "We put some pressure on them, had some decent chances."

Then Mexico scored on a penalty kick and it was downhill from there.

"Until you play in games like that at that level, you don't understand what that's like," Donovan said. "In an MLS game, you can get away with starting to push forward and throw numbers forward. Against Mexico, in a Gold Cup final, when it's hot and you're tired, they're going to make you pay for that and they did. We have to learn from that."

The victory was the first by Mexico over the Americans in the U.S. in a decade, and it had the fans of "El Tri" crowing. But Donovan said Wednesday's game will be different.

"One doesn't really have anything to do with the other," he said. "The only unfortunate thing is it gives them a lot of confidence, which they hadn't had. To their credit, they're playing well, and it's going make them feel like they have more confidence against us."

In Donovan, though, Mexico will be running into a player who has matured considerably since the last time he stepped on the field against Mexico 18 months ago. Donovan led MLS with 20 goals last season and already has nine this season. He is in top form.

Spending the winter on loan to Bayern Munich helped, but there are other reasons.

"More of it is this kind of long journey I've been on since the World Cup in 2006 and finally getting to a place where I'm just consistently playing well," he said. "There's still room to grow, but I'm happy with where I am right now. The good thing is I'm just being aggressive and I'm doing the things I do well more often.

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