Jonah Freedman
Sunday September 6th, 2009

SANDY, Utah -- So who has been the standout for U.S. Soccer this past year? That's the question I need to answer, as my ballot arrived just this past week for the Honda Player of Year, voted on annually by the American soccer media.

If you had asked me Saturday afternoon, I would've said my vote probably was going to U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu, whose dominant performances in World Cup qualifying and, especially, the Confederations Cup, have made him the standout of 2009 and earned him high-profile transfer to AC Milan. I mean, how often does an American land himself a gig at Milan? (Answer: never, before Gooch.)

But here at Rio Tinto Stadium against El Salvador on Saturday night, a handful of former Honda award winners sure did their best to win my vote. Once again, the U.S. found itself down a goal in the first half in a World Cup qualifier, the fourth time it has done so in this final Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying.

After a promising early start, U.S. left back Jonathan Bornstein made the worst mistake of his forgettable day, clearing the ball in the 32nd minute straight into his own box and to the foot of Salvadoran striker Rodolfo Zelaya, who flipped the ball onto the dome of a charging Christian Castillo for the game's opening goal. El Salvador 1, U.S. 0.

And that's when Landon Donovan decided he'd had enough. "I was just angry," he said. "We started the game pretty well and put them under a lot of pressure. We should have found a way to make a goal and then we made a mistake and they capitalized."

From that point on, Donovan and Clint Dempsey took over. Donovan, who only recently recovered from a bout of swine flu that severely limited him in the painful 2-1 loss at Mexico last month, was once again the dominating figure we've come to know. Against El Salvador, most of the offense ran through the all-time leading scorer in U.S. history.

In the 41st minute, Donovan's free kick from just outside the right side of the box found Dempsey, who headed in the equalizer. And all of a sudden, the American fans at Rio Tinto roared back to life. Five minutes later, Donovan struck again, crossing the ball in from the left side to Jozy Altidore for the go-ahead goal, which would hold up as the difference in the 2-1 victory.

It wasn't just the pair of assists that stood out. The Americans' game went through Donovan the entire 90 minutes. Quick flicks, dangerous passes, leading the charge upfield on a break, finding his fellow attackers when they didn't appear open -- Donovan dominated the field in a display that reminded fans why he is the best soccer player the U.S. has ever produced, period.

"Landon has talked about how he has matured, grown, taken more responsibility and understands how to play the game at that kind of level," said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley. "It's been huge for our team to see how much he's putting in -- he's really set a great example."

Meanwhile, Dempsey stayed dangerous the entire game on the opposite wing and had a couple of near-misses of his own. Most prominently, it was his through-ball in the 58th minute that sprung Altidore loose for what would have been the 19-year-old's second goal of the game. But the tally was wiped out after referee José Pineda determined Dempsey fouled Salvadoran defender Marvin González on the play.

Put aside the fact for a second that the U.S. really sweated more than it needed to in order to put El Salvador away at home. The simple fact is that the Americans went down a goal early -- an annoyingly recurring habit they seem to have -- and then sucked it up after taking their cues from their best players.

"It's good when you see your big players come out and they want to play," said striker Charlie Davies. "It just makes you want to play that much better. They're the leaders, they're the veterans of the team. We know -- me and Jozy especially -- that we gotta take our game up a notch every time we get on the field."

The U.S. still has its flaws, and some were exposed against El Salvador. For one, the defensive back four still isn't set, and the picture gets even murkier when starters are out due to injuries or suspensions. Onyewu and Jay DeMerit, Bradley's preferred center-back pairing of late, were both sidelined Saturday night.

That forced team captain Carlos Bocanegra to shift back to center from left back, and thrust Columbus Crew masher Chad Marshall into the middle as well. The makeshift group's performance was a mixed bag, as several balls were scooped up by El Salvador dangerously close to goal (Tim Howard was unnecessarily forced to make a victory-preserving save on a point-blank shot by William Reyes in the dying minutes).

But if we learned anything on Saturday, it's that when the game gets dicey, the U.S.' big names are willing to pick up the slack. "You definitely want to stand up and be counted," said Dempsey. "You're a player the team looks to to get goals and you want to try to help the team win. If you don't take advantage of these games, you're not going to be in the World Cup."

Up next for the U.S. is its most winnable road game in this final round of qualifying, in just four days at Trinidad. If the Americans can get their first away win of the Hexagonal, they'll be sitting pretty with 16 points and on the doorstep of qualifying for their sixth straight World Cup.

"That's what we're here for," said Dempsey. "To get this job done."

He and Donovan just made my voting task that much harder. And the U.S. is better for it.

• U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati told reporters at halftime that Edgar Castillo's application to switch his eligibility back to the U.S. has been approved by FIFA. The New Mexico-born left back had played four games (all friendlies) for the Mexican national team under former coach Hugo Sánchez but had disappeared from the picture under Sven-Göran Eriksson and current coach Javier Aguirre.

Castillo is now eligible for a call-up from Bradley as early as the Americans' qualifier at Honduras on Oct. 10, should Bradley choose to do so. Judging by how poorly Bornstein played Saturday night, it might not be a bad time to give the 22-year-old Castillo a look. Speaking of guys who switched national teams...

• After all the hype, did former U.S. Under-20 Arturo Alvarez indeed find it weird facing his old teammates? "It wasn't as weird as I thought it was going to be," he said after getting his first El Salvador start in only his second game for his new national team.

Probably the worst drama for the Houston-born Alvarez was that the Salvadoran team's hotel rooms in nearby Provo were broken into on Friday while the squad was off at practice (as first reported by The Washington Post). Alvarez was one of a half-dozen Salvadoran players victimized. Among his taken items, he said, were his laptop, a ring and a wad of cash.

• The best line of the night came from Donovan when I asked him if he felt a special responsibility to turn on the juice after his forgettable performance in Mexico City last month. Deadpanned the red-hot L.A. Galaxy superstar: "No. That's the way I am now. That's the way I play."

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