By Joe Curley

Scripps Howard News Service

His legs bounced. His head nodded. His eyes narrowed.

He was a 20-year-old kid, void of the types of expectations or experiences that enable a soccer player to lead his country to its best World Cup performance in 72 years.

But four years ago in Suwon, South Korea, not long after being told he would play, Landon Donovan burst out of the locker room like Tanner Boyle from "The Bad News Bears" without the second baseman's mitt.

American soccer had its swagger. And mighty Portugal was torn asunder, allowing three goals in little more than a half-hour in falling in one of the bigger upsets in World Cup history.

"Honestly, I was pretty confident," Donovan said last month in Cary, N.C., where the U.S. prepared for this month's World Cup in Germany.

"I don't remember ever being in awe of Portugal or thinking, "Wow, we can't beat a team that's this good.' I've never dealt with that in my life. I don't remember ever feeling that way."

Over the course of the next fortnight, as the U.S. attempts to build on the heroics of Asia by progressing into the knockout stages in Germany, there will be a lot written about American teamwork and industriousness and athleticism. And how the only way the U.S. can emerge from a group filled with higher profile players - from Czech Republic's Pavel Nedved to Italy's Francesco Totti to Ghana's Michael Essien - is by being greater than the sum of its parts.

But even the most balanced team needs a rock to lean on. And Donovan, at 5-foot-8, 148 pounds, is Gibraltar in Stars and Stripes.

"I was nervous initially, but we were so well-prepared," said Donovan. "So you have two ways of approaching - either you try not to lose or you go in and try to win the game. That's the way we played. We went in thinking, "Why not us? Why can't we win the game? We've got players that are good enough."'

The rest of the world still harbors doubts. During the camp in Cary, an Italian journalist asked Donovan the loaded question, "Do you think you can beat Italy?"

Donovan leaned forward without hesitation and said, "We have the ability to, yes."

From that well of confidence springs the Kool-Aid that enables the rest of the squad to believe.

"Landon is a much more experienced and confident player this time around," said coach Bruce Arena. "He has a picture of what the World Cup looks like.

"His experience, confidence and ability will allow him to deliver a very, very good World Cup for us."

The circumstances are very different four years later. Now he assumes he's in the starting lineup. Now he has some feel of the timing of the World Cup as an event. And, remembering how Korea seemed to fly by, he's looking forward, soaking in the experience a bit more.

"I'm excited that I'm going to be able to take advantage of all of what a World Cup is, this time, because I'm aware of what it is. Last time, you get there and you're preparing and you're so focused, but it was gone like that.

"All of a sudden I was like, "What just happened?' This time, I'll at least have a little bit better understanding and appreciation."

His teammates and coaches say, at 24, he takes his job much more seriously than he did at 20. Donovan attributes that professional growth to Arena, who has him down in November for a heart-to-heart talk.

"I've become a better professional over the last six months, and that's largely attributable to Bruce," said Donovan. "We've had a few talks about my approach to the game, and Bruce told me, "Not only do I expect you to be professional, but your teammates expect it. You're not 20-years-old anymore, this isn't just the game you love; it's your job."'

"I took that to heart."

Perhaps that's the type of outlook that would have helped his two frustrating tenures at Bundesliga club Bayer Leverkusen, where he first arrived at 17.

He may not want to talk about his return to the World Cup intersecting with his return to Germany.

"I really don't have any feelings about it," said Donovan. "I could care less if we were going to Brazil or South Africa or Bahrain. I could care less."

But his emotions will surface in his play this month.

They are already creeping into his mind. With the help of his prior experience, he began envisioning what this tournament will look like last month.

Donovan found himself falling asleep to thoughts of the Czech Republic.

"It's never anything specific, but that's how I know I'm excited because that doesn't happen too much," said Donovan. "Usually, maybe the night before a game you start thinking about things. But four weeks out?"

During training the next morning, he ripped a shot past a goalkeeper visiting from the University of North Carolina, which is near Cary.

His eyes told him he beat a college goalkeeper. His mind told him that Czech keeper Peter Cech saved the shot.

He has less than a week to calibrate his sights, narrowing those eyes again.

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