By Ridge Mahoney
He's asked the question a lot, especially after he shreds a defense as he did Sunday in a 3-1 thumping of Ecuador that featured the skills and speed and guile at which mere mortals can only marvel, and a killer instinct Landon Donovan sometimes lacks.
"It's not like other sports, especially basketball, where you might get the ball in a good spot 40 or 50 times a game," he responded last year to the hoary implication he should dominate games most, if not all, of the time. "In hockey, you might get the puck maybe a a dozen times in the other team's end.
"In soccer, there are 10 other players, and 11 other guys trying to stop them, and the field's a lot bigger, so you might only get a few opportunities to get the ball and really do something with it, whether that means going for goal yourself or making that pass that puts someone else in a position to score."
Donovan's three goals, the second U.S. hat trick of his career, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa brought the USA its third win of the Bob Bradley era. The Americans scrambled and struggled to contain Ecuador's rugged, speedy attackers until Donovan struck twice within a minute midway through the second half to blow open a 1-1 game.
Up to that point, Ecuador had shown the same flair and commitment of its showing at last summer's World Cup, where it thumped Poland and Costa Rica and gave England a scare before falling 1-0 to a David Beckham free kick. While its back line left gaps and spaces, overlapping right back Ulises De La Cruz and lighting-quick forwards Carlos Tenorio and Felipe Caicedo sparked a few panic attacks in the U.S. penalty areas.
"Ecuador, as we know from last summer, is a very talented team," said Bradley. "I thought there was a period in the first half that we didn't handle that well."
The Americans scored in the first minute when Donovan cushioned a weakly headed clearance and drilled a left-footer past keeper Rorys Aragon. They continued to push the pace, yet soon thereafter surrendered an equalizer by Caicedo, who just barged through several tacklers to stab the ball into the net, and were somewhat lucky to leave the field at halftime having conceded just one goal.
Benny Feilhaber marked an impressive debut by heading a De La Cruz header off the goal line and keeper Tim Howard saved at Tenorio's feet.
Bradley removed Eddie Johnson at halftime and brought in his son, Michael Bradley, to play alongside Feilhaber. Donovan joined Ching up top. Both pairs of players clicked, especially the forward tandem they formed as San Jose teammates in 2003 and 2004.
Galaxy teammate Joe Cannon said a couple of weeks ago, "Everybody knows a happy Landon Donovan is the best player in our league."
Euphoria abounded after he'd destroyed Ecuador by sticking away a through ball played by Ching and blasting a square ball from DaMarcus Beasley right-footed into the top corner.
Bradley's lively, sharp work helped expose the tiring Ecuadorians and meshed well with Feilhaber's touches, which he smoothed out after a few first-half giveaways. Ching set up Donovan's goal with a clever checking run in midfield and penetrating through ball that caught the Ecuadorian back line completely flat, static and bamboozled.
"I knew the last defender was marking me and I saw Landon just take off," said Ching, who played the second half with gauze in his nose after being bloodied by a kick in the face. "He's going to beat pretty much anyone in a foot race, so I just looked to get the ball in and behind the defense. He got on the end of it and made a great finish."
The shocked Ecuadorians lost possession on the ensuing kickoff. They were soon to be stunned yet again. Beasley raced down the left flank and cut back a ball across the line of backtracking defenders and right into the path of Donovan's late run. One first-time rocket into the top corner later, it was 3-1.
"Hats off to Landon, he did a great job finishing the chances he had," said Dempsey, whose own attacking game suffered from double-teams that rarely allowed him to run with the ball. "As a whole, I thought we played well and played good soccer."
Bradley will have to revamp his defense for the game against Guatemala Wednesday in Texas.
Oguchi Oneywu, Carlos Bocanegra and Howard left after the game to rejoin their English teams. Brian Carrollheaded to Mexico to join D.C. United's preparations for the CONCACAF Champions' Cup second leg against CD Guadalajara April 3.
"I thought we got a lot accomplished throughout the week, and obviously that group of players made up the nucleus of the team today," said Bradley, who fielded nine European-based players. "So I think they deserved the credit."
Much credit is due, too, to American icon Donovan, named by Bradley as captain for this match.
"I used to say I would love to be a leader, but it's not good enough just to say it," he said after upping his U.S. tally to 30 goals, second only to Eric Wynalda (34) on the all-time list. "When you're not as fit like I was in the first camp, you can't do all the things you want to do.
"Now I'm fit, and I feel like I'm playing well. I'm trying to be that type of leader."