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Young Donovan brightens USA's prospects

By Amy Rosewater, Special for USA TODAY

Bruce Arena hasn't had much cause for celebration lately. After appearing to have a World Cup berth easily in reach, the U.S. soccer team has lost three consecutive qualifiers and is hoping to make the finals. But not everything has been so glum for Arena.

One of the few bright spots throughout this slump has been the emergence of 19-year-old phenom Landon Donovan, who made his qualifying debut Sept. 1 in a 3-2 loss against Honduras. The dyed-blond teenager from Ontario, Calif., has impressed Arena and teammates by playing at such a high level at such a young age.

"I think he's done really well," Arena says. "He's a good attacking player, and he's had a good year in (Major League Soccer). Good players can come and play in big games. They get better with time."

With the team needing an offensive boost, Donovan is expected to be back in the starting lineup when the USA faces a crucial qualifier against Jamaica (2 p.m. ET, ABC) Sunday in Foxboro, Mass. A victory coupled with losses by Mexico and Honduras will qualify the USA for the World Cup finals for a fourth consecutive time. If the USA loses it could face elimination. The USA's final qualifier is Nov. 11 at Trinidad and Tobago.

"I think we're a much more business-like group now than we were before," Donovan says. "We're much more serious than we were in the other camps. It's sad that it takes us being on the brink of elimination for us to be the way that we are, but we realize if we don't win this game we're not going to have much to do for a while."

In addition to playing for the national team, Donovan has been trying to help the San Jose Earthquakes win the MLS Cup. He leads the league in playoff scoring with three goals and one assist. Although the competition is fiercer in the World Cup, Donovan and his U.S. teammates hope his hot MLS scoring will translate into success against Jamaica.

"Lately, I've been taking shots, and they're finding their way into the net," Donovan says. "I'm feeling the most confident I have all year."

Says MLS and U.S. teammate Jeff Agoos: "When I was 19 I couldn't imagine stepping onto a field for a World Cup qualifier. It's a tribute to his talent."

MLS went out of its way to help the national team. The league took a week off in the midst of its playoffs to allow Arena a chance to hold a weeklong camp. In turn, the national team called up 13 MLS players for his 23-man roster, 10 from teams in MLS semifinals. Playoffs resume Wednesday.

Says MLS Commissioner Don Garber: "We're all in this together to build the sport. Our success isn't dependent on whether they qualify but it is important for the ascension for the U.S. as a world power in soccer."

Says Arena: "At the end of the day, if we don't qualify it's because we're not good enough, not because we haven't gotten enough support."

Postponed: The qualifier between Israel and Austria was postponed Thursday by FIFA, citing the crash of a charter flight from Tel Aviv. No makeup date was announced immediately for Sunday's match. On Monday, FIFA denied Austria's request to move the match because of security fears. The next day, nine Austrian players said they wouldn't go to the game.

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