When he took up his post last year, USA coach Bob Bradley had concerns about who would lead the side after the retirement of influential captain Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope.
"Just playing for the national team should not be enough," Bradley told FIFA.com in his first interview as USA coach, singling out the brilliant but inconsistent Landon Donovan. "The top players need to see things differently and understand just what it means to represent their country."
Scoring from the spot in Saturday's 2-0 friendly win over Sweden, Donovan, who was rangy and involved throughout the game, became the top scorer in the US national team's history and looked up to the job of wearing the captain's armband. His 35th goal came early in the second half after teenage sensation and substitute Jozy Altidore, earning only his second cap, was taken down in the area.
The landmark tally broke the previous record of 34 held by fellow Californian Eric Wynalda, now a respected television commentator.
For Los Angeles Galaxy man Donovan, whose commitment and
ambition have been called into question since his failure to
achieve in two ill-fated stints with Bayer Leverkusen, the record
means considerably less than does his new role as on-field leader.
"I don't think the record is very important in itself, "said the 25-year-old after reaching the milestone in just 97 caps. "I am just proud to have just played so many games for the national team."
USA lined up with an almost entirely domestic-based line-up when they faced UEFA EURO 2008 qualifiers Sweden at Donovan's home ground in Carson, California. Without the likes of Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard, expectations were limited. Fortunately for the hosts, the Swedes also took the pitch a fair-bit off their full-strength with regulars like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Olof Mellberg on club duty on the other side of the Atlantic.
Led by Donovan's wily orchestration of play from midfield, rather than in his usual advanced position, the young US Side showed a great deal of intricacy and understanding with their passing and possession play. Although they had to rely on goalkeeper Brad Guzan for a few important saves near the end of the first period, the Americans picked up right where they left off after wins over South Africa and Switzerland at the tail end of 2007.
Youngsters like Ricardo Clark and Drew Moor looked like old veterans as they get set to contribute in USA's campaign to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, which will begin with a two-legged tie against either Dominican Republic or Barbados in June.
Debutant centre-back Eddie Robinson of Major League Soccer
champions Houston Dynamo (one of three lads earning their first cap
against the Swedes) opened the scoring with a deft finish on the
quarter-hour mark, when Pat Noonan slammed off the post from a
The game was effectively ended as a contest when Donovan stepped up to slot home his penalty and make history early in the second half. After his usual pre-spot kick ritual, he stroked home coolly, then grabbed the ball and brought it over to the sideline in order to mark the moment for posterity.
The strike may have had only marginal meaning for Donovan, the second highest-paid player in the MLS behind LA Galaxy team-mate David Beckham, but his boss and US fans alike will be thrilled with the player's newfound comfort in the role of team leader. "I think before this year I felt like I needed to be more of leader, but there were still a lot of players with more experience around," the thrice CONCACAF Gold Cup champion told FIFA.com.
"Now I am older than most of the guys, so it's mandatory. Last year, the more I looked inside, the more I realised that being captain wasn't something I was earning. Just because I've been here a long time and have a lot of caps, that doesn't make me a captain. I wanted to make sure this week that I showed I can be a captain," Donovan added.
Still considered by critics as a player who wilts in the face of real meaningful challenges, Donovan's captain's instincts will be put to a far sterner test in USA's next game: a grudge match with old rivals Mexico on 6 February in Houston.
Of his 35 goals in a US jersey, the new skipper holds the second in a 2-0 reverse of Mexico in the Round of 16 at Korea/Japan 2002 as his favourite, and will be keen to repeat the dose in a heated friendly in Texas and again when South Africa 2010 qualifying begins.
With a raft of young players coming through from Thomas Rongen's outstanding production line at U-20 level - and a willing leader in top man Landon - Bob Bradley may have struck the balance he was hoping for.