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Donovan faces sternest test yet

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LOS ANGELES – As soon as a few contractual wrinkles are ironed out, Landon Donovan will head out of Los Angeles and jump headfirst into the most important challenge of his career.

A loan stint with Everton of the English Premier League is a crucial crossroads in the soccer life of the USA's best-known and most talented player, with the looming shadow of the fast-approaching 2010 World Cup constantly in his thoughts.

It is the desire to shine in South Africa next summer and atone for the galling personal anguish he felt after his dismal showing in the 2006 tournament that was the driving force behind the decision to head to Everton.

The EPL is perhaps soccer's toughest proving ground, a physical and mental minefield in which some of the game's biggest reputations have come unstuck.

Donovan says he wants the challenge, relishes it, and has no expectations of an easy ride. That's just as well, because he won't get one.

However, the 27-year-old's importance to the national team, a point rammed home spectacularly during the Confederations Cup, is such that even the U.S. fans who prefer to lament Donovan's unfulfilled potential rather than celebrate his abilities will be rooting for him over the early months of 2010.

Everton is an opportunity to shine for 10 short-yet-action-packed weeks before he returns to the Los Angeles Galaxy for the start of the new MLS campaign.

Previous stints in Europe have not borne fruit, yet there are some key elements to this temporary transfer that make it closer, in theory, to being the right fit than former moves to Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen.

"There are a number of factors which would make Everton great for Landon," said Galaxy head coach and former U.S. boss Bruce Arena. "The club has a small roster, a bunch of injuries and congested playing schedule."

That should equal a fair crack at a starting spot and plenty of playing time. It all points to Everton being a happy winter home for Donovan.

The EPL club's boss, David Moyes, has close and long-standing ties with Arena. More importantly, he is a staunch believer in Donovan and has convinced the Everton board that the American offers real value and immediate impact.

The situation is not an easy one, though, with some fan unrest following a poor start to the season that sees Everton in the bottom six rather than in their customary recent position just behind the Big Four clubs of English soccer.

Furthermore, the World Cup draw which pitted England and the USA in the same group next summer will increase the focus on Donovan and the rest of the EPL's American contingent.

Many suspected that Donovan's final kick in an MLS shirt would be the penalty that contributed to the Galaxy's heartbreaking shootout defeat to Real Salt Lake in last month's MLS Cup final.

Some will see a decision to sign a new four-year contract with the Galaxy, albeit one with freedom to accept whatever appropriate loan offers come up, as a lack of motivation on his part.

However, while the new agreement offered him the "best of both worlds," as Donovan insisted, in reality it boiled down to the Galaxy's indication that they would refuse to sell him on a permanent transfer during the final two years of his existing deal.

"The way this is going to hopefully work out gives me a great opportunity," said Donovan. "I think playing in England is going to add a lot to my game.

"You always want to go where you are wanted. When teams do their research about you and reach out, then you know there is an opportunity for you to play. With the World Cup around the corner, that is of huge importance."

With Everton's midfield having been affected by injuries, that's where he may be deployed by Moyes, but he may also get a chance in a striking role.

He will be greeted at Everton by a friend and ally in Tim Howard, the U.S. national team goalkeeper whose career has blossomed under Moyes.

"I have played with Landon for a long time and he is a talented player," said Howard earlier this week. "He is a strong runner, got a nose for goal and loves to attack. If he came through the doors I would be delighted.

"To bring a fantastic player to this club is massively important, no matter his nationality."

The upside to this move for Donovan is significant, a chance to build his reputation in one of the biggest leagues in the world. The pieces are in place and optimism is high.

Now it's on him, his psyche and his ability to handle this sternest of examinations.

Group C watch

We take a snapshot look at what's going on with the USA's group rivals in the lead-up to the tournament.

• England: All is well in the England camp, the only sign of dissent being the revelation that Carlton Cole smuggled a bottle of ketchup into the last training camp, in contravention of manager Fabio Capello's strict regulations.

• Algeria: The North African nation had further cause for cheer this week, reaching its highest ever FIFA world ranking of 26th.

• Slovenia: Defender Bostjan Cesar has revealed the Slovenian team has vowed to target England striker Wayne Rooney for the horror tackle he made on Cesar during a recent friendly.


Cape Town Stadium, one of the World Cup venues feared to be running drastically behind schedule, was completed on time this week and opened at a special ceremony. Despite early concerns, it looks as if South Africa is meeting the challenge of getting ready on time with some style.


As if the World Cup Group of Death was not going to be hard enough, Portugal will now likely have to cope without its influential central defender Pepe. Reports in Spain indicate that the Real Madrid star has damaged his meniscus and has virtually no chance of making it back by June.

World Cup Numer-ology – 176 days to go

176 – Number of nations assisted by the FIFA Goal program, aimed at spreading some of the wealth generated by the World Cup through humanitarian projects.

Put it on your calendar

March 3 – Bob Bradley's U.S. team will travel to Amsterdam for a friendly against the Netherlands in what will be a tough test on the final official international fixture date before World Cup warm-ups begin.

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