Donovan, the all-time USA scoring leader and a Los Angeles Galaxy team-mate of English star David Beckham, said on Tuesday it was difficult to compare US levels at this stage to the 2002 Korea/Japan quarter-finalists or the Germany 2006 squad which suffered a first round exit.
"We're pretty satisfied with where we are now and the hard work we've put in but I think we realize if we want to be ultimately successful in South Africa we still have some work to do," Donovan said. "OK, we're there. Now how do we do everything we can to have success once we get there?"
Donovan will spark the Americans in Wednesday's final North American hexagonal FIFA World Cup qualifying match against Costa Rica in the US capital. He feels he has made improvements on and off the field in the past three years.
"I've done a lot of that work already," Donovan said. "I'm comfortable knowing I'm a different player and person than I was the last two hexagonals."
The Major League Soccer standout said the North American league has already shown it can develop competitive talent. "Our league can produce players that can play in the biggest tournaments in the world and I think we've shown that in the past two World Cups and this one," Donovan said. "There's not a vast difference."
The next step is to win such a showdown. USA coach Bob Bradley sees finishing first ahead of Mexico in the CONCACAF regional qualifying as important. So much so that Bradley is willing to risk top players even with a chance of injury or a red card that would bring a FIFA World Cup opener suspension.
"There are risks in the final game but this game is important," Bradley said. "Of late, we're very pleased with the way we've handled ourselves." Costa Rica qualifies for the FIFA World Cup with a victory but a draw or loss opens the door for Honduras, which must win at El Salvador to have a chance for the last automatic berth on offer from North America.
The same Hondurans who lost to USA last weekend will cheer for the Americans against Costa Rica. "We've got a job to do to put our best team out there," USA captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "It's not fair for us not to go out there and give our best effort. If the situation was reversed we would be pretty angry."
Costa Rica comes off a 4-0 blanking of Trinidad and Tobago in the first match under new coach Rene Simoes, a Brazilian who once guided Jamaica's FIFA World Cup squad. "Costa Rica is a talented team that hit a tough stretch in qualifying," said Bradley. "Costa Rica's big win has given life to their effort. We expect another big effort and we will prepare accordingly."