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Donovan wants to show rest of world his talents

By Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY

Mrs. DaCunha, U.S. Soccer thanks you.

One of her students, Landon Donovan, was just a pipsqueak of 16 during the World Cup in France in 1998 when he had dreams of playing in this summer's World Cup.

He would arrive at Redlands East Valley High in California a half-hour early so he could catch the early World Cup games on TV in one of his classrooms. Once class began, he tried to persuade his teachers to turn on the games. "But they were like, 'No way,' " he says.

But if math class finished early, his teacher, Mrs. DaCunha, would let Donovan turn on the World Cup. "I'm sure everyone in class was thinking, 'This guy is crazy,' " he says.

Maybe so, but crazy is now this: Donovan, who turned 20 Monday, is vying for a starting position on the U.S. World Cup team.

"You can't argue the fact that he's as talented as any player we've had at this age probably in the history of soccer in this country," U.S. coach Bruce Arena says.

Only seven more games remain for the U.S. men before the World Cup, which runs from May 31 to June 30 in South Korea and Japan. The USA plays World Cup-bound Ecuador, a team it has never defeated, Sunday at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.

It will be the final opportunity for Major League Soccer players who are on the bubble for the 23-player World Cup squad. The team's European-based players will comprise much of the roster March 27 when the USA meets Germany.

Donovan, who plays for MLS' San Jose Earthquakes, is certainly not on the bubble. He's more Lawrence Welk, the host of the show, entertaining his audience as bubbles cascade around him.

Against Honduras last weekend, he scored two goals in a 4-0 win. Though Donovan shined on junior national teams, he is about to take his star turn on the world's biggest stage.

Even so, he is exceedingly grounded. In his mind, it's too early to pack his rain gear for what will be monsoon season in South Korea. "Unfortunately, one bad game and everyone forgets about the Gold Cup or Honduras," he says. "You have to keep going. You can't be complacent. It's very competitive right now. You have to keep an edge up if at all possible."

Arena says that Donovan's versatility is one of his many strengths. Though usually a forward, he has become increasingly comfortable in the attacking midfield role. He hopes a strong game against Ecuador will put him on the roster for the Germany match, which has added significance for him.

In 1999, when he was at Redlands East Valley, Donovan signed a four-year, $400,000 contract with German Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, only to be stuck playing on its reserve team in the fourth division.

Frustrated and homesick, Donovan asked for a loan to MLS. He led the Earthquakes, league doormats in 2000, to the championship in 2001. He scored five goals in the team's six playoff games.

"I really want to go on that trip for obvious reasons," Donovan says about the Germany game. "It's a chance for me to show them I'm a lot more confident. I'm a lot more comfortable as a player. I'm definitely motivated for that game if I go."

Obviously, at lot has changed since Donovan's days at Redlands East Valley when he had to talk his way into watching Roberto Baggio or Ronaldo in the World Cup. Now he is on the same stage.

Obviously, a lot has changed since Donovan's days in Germany as a bit player. Now he's vying for a leading role.

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