COLUMBUS, Ohio – It is United States vs. Mexico, so that means we talk about Landon Donovan. It's just unavoidable.
No player epitomizes the most heated rivalry in CONCACAF soccer more than Donovan, the U.S. star who speaks Spanish, plays more like a Mexican and is utterly despised south of the border. Ahead of Wednesday's opening match in the final round of World Cup qualifying, though, there is another reason to discuss Donovan, whose career has suddenly gotten interesting as he sits on the verge of a permanent move from the Los Angeles Galaxy to Bayern Munich.
The 26-year-old Donovan – who chose to focus on national team matters and not his future at a news conference here on Tuesday – has a chance to make his mark overseas. It's an intriguing plot that could shape the rest of his career.
"I have always been ready for this game and excited for it no matter where I am," Donovan said. "[Playing for Bayern] doesn't really change anything except I have traveled a bit further to get here."
This year promises to be the biggest of Donovan's soccer life, and 2010 could be even bigger. After a couple of false starts in Germany during his younger years, he is giving Europe another crack and has been at Bayern on loan since January.
Bayern head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is believed to be in favor of securing Donovan on a permanent basis, as evidenced by his inclusion on the club's UEFA Champions League roster. Klinsmann sees something valuable in Donovan, and the player appears to be responding to the support.
That's good news for U.S. Soccer. With the World Cup 16 months away, it does the Americans no good to have their most talented player stagnating in the toxic atmosphere of the crisis-stricken Galaxy, irrespective of whether David Beckham sticks around in Tinseltown.
U.S. head coach Bob Bradley clearly is enamored with the prospect of one of his top players performing at an elite European club each week.
"It is a great opportunity," Bradley said. "To hear Landon speak in the last year, you could tell that he was thinking about new challenges. It is important that players throughout their careers continue to challenge themselves and push forward, and this opportunity to be at Bayern Munich is a great test. We hope those experiences will come back in a positive way to the national team."
The value of adding Donovan's creativity can help Bayern domestically and in Europe. Klinsmann's team should have too much depth towards the end of the Bundesliga campaign and be able to overhaul surprise leaders Hoffenheim, while the Champions League will provide the greatest test.
A full-time move, if it can be worked out, could be the spark that Donovan's career has been missing. There is a growing sense that this is his time.
Many would tout Donovan as the most accomplished player in CONCACAF, although even the most fervent Donovan fan would have to admit that Wilson Palacios of Honduras and a handful of Mexicans also have valid claims on that title. Yet there are others who love nothing more than to lambaste him, based primarily on his failure to deliver on the biggest stage at the 2006 World Cup.
Perhaps Donovan's biggest challenge is to prove his credentials when it really counts. The pressurized atmosphere of the German Bundesliga could help prepare him for the World Cup in South Africa.
Now more than ever, Donovan has pride in his performance. He also has a nasty streak which helped chase a personal goal of finishing as MLS' top scorer last season as the Galaxy's campaign unraveled around him.
Whether or not he lacked commitment in the past, it has taken Donovan time to learn how to maximize his talent, to operate with full professionalism and work out what preparatory methods work best for him. Freddy Adu's inability to secure regular first-team action in Europe dictates that Donovan is the man the U.S. must look to for its attacking verve and flair, and Mexico knows it, even if its players are reluctant to admit as much.
"Donovan is an important player for the United States, but I believe they all deserve our attention," midfielder Leandro Augusto said. "We need to be organized everywhere on the field so that there won't be any surprises.
"Against him, you have to make sure that he doesn't have much possession, stop his teammates from passing him the ball and minimize the space he has to work in."
In soccer terms, Donovan hates Mexico, and it hates him back. He is a prime target for verbal abuse from opponents and rival fans, and he isn't slow to fan the flames himself, most notably by urinating on the side of the pitch at the Estadio Jalisco in 2004.
At home, though, he is better liked these days, with less frustration aimed at him and less assassination of his character. Donovan is the man most likely to help the U.S. book passage to South Africa, and he looks primed for the start of an adventure, both for himself and the national team.