WASHINGTON -- Here's a sign the United States is catching up in the soccer world: The Americans are set to start a teen-ager in Saturday's World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
Landon Donovan, just 19, probably will play forward for the injury-depleted U.S. team, becoming the youngest American to appear in a qualifier since 1985 and the third-youngest ever.
"If I wasn't ready, they wouldn't have me here," he said Friday, sitting on the bench at RFK Stadium after the Americans worked out in the heat and humidity.
With dyed blond hair, he looks like a kid who could be roller-blading through a mall. But he's not just any kid - he can make magic with a soccer ball, with outstanding speed and a first touch uncommon for Americans.
Two years ago, he was voted most valuable player of the FIFA Under-17 Championship. Last year, he scored against Kuwait at the Sydney Olympics, then scored against Mexico in his national team debut.
And this year?
In his first season in Major League Soccer, he has seven goals in 15 games with the San Jose Earthquakes and became the MVP of the MLS All-Star game with a four-goal performance.
"He's certainly capable," U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. "He has enough confidence in himself and enough experience."
In February 1999, when he was just 16 and back in Redlands, Calif., Donovan signed with German club Bayer Leverkusen. But he never got into a game during two seasons in Germany and began to worry that his progress would slow.
Bayer Leverkusen loaned him to San Jose this spring and, with injuries to Brian McBride, Clint Mathis, Josh Wolff, Ante Razov and John O'Brien, Donovan has moved up the depth chart of a national team offense that has just seven goals in six qualifiers.
"Everybody says you can train as much as you want, but you need game experience," he said. "Now I know. You have an ease about you if you've played a lot of professional games."
Teen-aged professionals are common in Europe and South America, where clubs encourage talented youth to quit school and play fulltime. But not in the United States.
Donovan's father and uncle are coming to RFK Stadium, where a sellout crowd is expected for the unusual 10 a.m. start. At least one of the Hondurans, forward Milton Nunez, had never heard of Donovan.
He'll be facing opponents who are older, stronger and tougher, and a team that beat Brazil and finished third in the Copa America.
Donovan's not worried.
"Just try to approach it the same as other games," he said of his mindset. "If you get too nervous about it, it'll show on the field."
The Americans (4-1-1), unbeaten in 19 straight home qualifiers since May 1985, enter second in the six-nation finals of the North and Central American and Caribbean region, tied with Costa Rica (4-1-1) at 13 points but trailing on goal difference. Honduras and Jamaica (2-2-2) have eight points apiece, one ahead of Mexico (2-3-1), and Trinidad and Tobago (0-4-1) is last with a single point.
With a win, the U.S. team would have 16 points, probably enough for a World Cup berth. Only the top three nations advance to next year's tournament in Japan and South Korea, and the Americans' next game is Wednesday night at Costa Rica, where they have never won in qualifying.
That makes Saturday's game even more important.
Donovan is expected to start up front with Jovan Kirovski. The midfield, missing injured captain Claudio Reyna, probably will have Chris Armas, Tony Sanneh, Earnie Stewart and either Cobi Jones or Joe-Max Moore. Steve Cherundolo, Eddie Pope, David Regis and Jeff Agoos are expected to start for the defense, which has allowed only two goals in six qualifiers. Brad Friedel probably will get the nod over Kasey Keller in goal.
All have played in qualifiers before, except for Donovan. Teammates tell him to not get caught up in the attention.
"You have to put it all behind you," Agoos said. "Enjoy it. Play like you're 8 or 9 years old."
Notes: The youngest player to appear in World Cup qualifying for the United States was Miro Rys, who was 19 years, 3 months, 2 days when he scored against Canada on Oct. 20, 1976. Mike Windischmann was 19 years, 5 months, 13 days when he played against Trinidad and Tobago on May 19, 1985. Donovan will be 19 years, 5 months, 28 days on Saturday. ... Carlos Pavon of Honduras leads the region with 14 goals in 13 qualifiers. ... Friedel, Cherundolo, Regis, Sanneh and defender Carlos Llamosa each has one yellow card and would be suspended for the Costa Rica game with another.
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