He'd scored two goals, delighted a rare pro-U.S. soccer crowd and helped the Americans take a giant step toward qualification for next year's World Cup in Germany. But the clearest evidence of Landon Donovan's continued growth came within minutes of the conclusion of the U.S.'s 3-0 win over Costa Rica at Salt Lake City's Rice-Eccles Stadium last Saturday: self-imposed amnesia, which he uses to ensure that he doesn't get complacent after having a big game. "I've gotten better about being into games more, but I need to find that every game, and it's a struggle," said Donovan, the 23-year-old midfielder who's been chronically inconsistent with the national team. "I want to put this game behind me and do it again on Wednesday."
With nine points out of a possible 12 heading into their match in Panama on Wednesday, the Yanks were in second place among the remaining six teams in the North, Central American and Caribbean region, in good shape to claim their fifth straight World Cup berth. Just as encouraging for the U.S. team is the fact that Donovan had given a resounding yes (for one game, at least) to the question on everyone's minds: Can he excel at the international level despite retreating to MLS's Los Angeles Galaxy in April after a disappointing three-month spell with Germany's Bayer Leverkusen?
That isn't the only question facing the Americans with just 12 months remaining until the World Cup. To wit:
Will the U.S. start two players under 21 again at the next World Cup? U.S. coach Bruce Arena called World Cup soccer "a young man's game" in 2002, when he put Donovan and midfielder DaMarcus Beasley in his starting lineup. Arena is pretty sure something like that won't happen this time around. "Maybe [16-year-old] Freddy Adu emerges in the next year," he says, although he's quick to add that he likes his young players. "But we do have young guys like Eddie Johnson  and Clint Dempsey , and guys like [20-year-old Columbus Crew defender] Chad Marshall have a chance of getting into the team." Of note: Two of the U.S.'s best players against Costa Rica were 35-year-old goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who made three big second-half saves, and 32-year-old forward Brian McBride, who scored his 27th international goal.
Whither captain Claudio Reyna? Arena was miffed that a healthy Reyna, who plays in England for Manchester City, opted out of the latest two World Cup qualifiers to rest for the next Premier League season. "I think it's a combination of pressures from his club and that he's in the last year of his contract there," Arena says. "He can't need a whole lot of rest because he hasn't played a lot the last couple years [due to injuries]. With national teams you need to know who's going to be there in good times and bad times. You can't have players pick and choose when they play."
Reached at his house in Naples, Fla., on Saturday, Reyna denied any pressure from Man City and defended his injury rehab work ("Let me tell you, it's not time off"). "I've always put the national team first," Reyna said. "I'm 32 this summer. I want to play at the highest levels as long as I can, and taking time off was the right move for me, my club and my future on the national team."
Still, Reyna will have a limited role with the U.S. this year, and Arena is already lamenting the shortage of dates set aside by FIFA for international friendlies next spring, when teams will work out their final World Cup rosters. "This year is important not only to qualify," Arena says, "but to develop some team chemistry." The question is whether Reyna, the best U.S. player of his generation, will be part of the mix.