Thursday June 23rd, 2011

HOUSTON -- They are the three most famous players in U.S. men's soccer -- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Freddy Adu -- and on a night when their team needed them most, they combined on a goal that helped each player overcome a personal challenge in addition to the one from a pesky Panama team in a hard-fought Gold Cup semifinal.

The U.S. is in Saturday's final against archrival Mexico after a 1-0 victory, courtesy of Dempsey's 77th-minute strike after terrific passes from Adu and Donovan. But that team-generated goal also had individual consequences. Dempsey, who has so often been viewed as a second banana to Donovan, cemented his place as the U.S.' go-to guy in 2011, scoring his third goal of the tournament. Donovan, who was surprisingly kept out of the starting lineup for the second straight game, showed why he should be on the field for all of the final.

And Adu? The 22-year-old proved that he's still relevant to the national team after so many people had written obituaries on his career. Let's not get ahead of ourselves and say that he's finally "made it," but give some credit to Adu for coming up big on an important occasion.

Adu's journey from professional soccer prodigy at 14 to the Turkish second division at 21 is well-documented -- here's my SI story from last year -- and yet on Wednesday it was clear that coach Bob Bradley thought Adu had gone about his business recently in the right way. The coach used the word "earned" no fewer than four times to describe Adu's efforts.

"When you see a player go to the second division in Turkey to keep things going in his career, that tells you something," said Bradley, who viewed Adu's humility in doing so as a good sign. "You could tell when he got the chance in this camp that he appreciated it. When I say he's matured, it shows in the way he comes in and acts and trains. He knows what's expected."

Adu said his lowest point came last fall, when the Greek club Aris told him it didn't want him and he essentially was paid to go away from the team for six months. He latched on at Turkey's Rizespor in January and gathered a new appreciation for what it means to make the national team.

"In a lot of ways I took it for granted before," Adu said. "When you haven't been here for a while and you get a chance to be here, you really appreciate just being around the guys and being on the national team, knowing that you really have to earn it. But once you get in, you have to keep working hard and keep getting better to get a chance to play."

"His attitude has been great," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. "The pressure that he's had on him, no one has had that pressure. He was billed as a messiah, and it's tough. But he's come in really humble. He's worked hard. He's gotten so much better in the rhythm and the flow of the team over the last month."

Adu got his opportunity in the second half on Wednesday, just as Donovan did. A year after scoring three goals in the World Cup, Donovan had not played up to his usual standards in this Gold Cup. But while it wasn't that surprising when Donovan was kept out of the lineup last Sunday after arriving from his sister's wedding at 7 a.m. on game day, it was a bit of a shock to see him on the bench again at the start against Panama on Wednesday.

"Bob and I spoke about it all week," Donovan said. "Throughout the years, we've always been very open and honest with our communications, so there's nothing left to the imagination. We spoke about it, and we agreed that the team played very well the other night. I've certainly been the beneficiary of playing well when the team plays well and you stay in the team. It's been that way my whole career, so it would be hypocritical to think otherwise. We're on the same page. I wanted to make sure that when I came in I could make an impact."

In the 77th minute of a scoreless game, just when it looked as though extra time was on its way, Adu got the ball near the center-circle and spied Donovan making a run down the right channel. Adu hit it from distance, Donovan pulled in the pass and thought about sending it first-time to Dempsey. Instead he ran at the defense before firing it hard across the box to Dempsey on the back post.

"It was a great ball from Freddy to open up Landon," said Dempsey. "Once Landon gets in those positions he normally finds a player. All I had to do was try to put myself in a position where he could find me. He hit it hard and low. All I had to do was put my foot on it."

In doing so Dempsey scored yet again for the U.S. in 2011, giving further credence that after one of the best years ever by an American in Europe he deserves to win his second Honda Player of the Year award as the top U.S. soccer player. Donovan has won the award a record seven times, including the last four, but at this point even he would probably vote for Dempsey.

Not that there are any issues between the two of them. After his goal on Wednesday, Dempsey made sure to embrace Donovan and point at him several times in front of the roaring crowd. Donovan may not have been at his best in this tournament, but Dempsey knows as well as anyone that the U.S. will need a big performance from both of them if it's going to beat the favored Mexico on Saturday in the Rose Bowl.

"He's a guy you always want next to you in a big game," Dempsey said of Donovan.

And Saturday is a big game -- as big as it gets in this corner of the world.

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