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
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
And that's when
From that point on, Donovan and
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
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
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
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
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
That forced team captain
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
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
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 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."