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Landon Donovan missing as US opens final round of World Cup qualifying

MIAMI (AP) — When the United States takes the field Wednesday in Honduras for the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying, Landon Donovan will be missing.

The 30-year-old midfielder, a veteran of three World Cups and the American career leader in goals and assists, is taking a break from soccer following the Los Angeles Galaxy’s second straight Major League Soccer title.

“Landon felt like he needed some time to figure out what was next for him, how to go forward. We all support that, but at the same time, life goes on here,” fellow midfielder Michael Bradley said. “We’re excited about the guys here and we’re confident in the group we have.”

The Americans practiced in Florida on Monday before traveling to San Pedro Sula for the match. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann maintained Donovan’s absence creates opportunity for others.

“We have plenty of options,” Klinsmann said. “We have 24 players in the camp, so plenty of options obviously for the coaches. And all of them are ready, all of them are hungry, all of them want to show a good game. So, I’m very positive about that challenge.”

Donovan appeared in all 10 final-round matches in 2009 and all seven in 2005 through the clincher. He missed the last four games of last year’s semifinal round.

Galaxy coach Bruce Arena said last month he expects Donovan to return to the team at some point this year but wouldn’t identify a timetable.

With Donovan on sabbatical, Graham Zusi might get a chance to replace Donovan on a flank. The 26-year-old Sporting Kansas City midfielder trained with England’s West Ham during the winter.

“Landon has been such a mainstay in this team. That position has been locked up for quite some time now,” Zusi said. “Any chance that he’s not here is a chance for someone else to come in.”

Much of the starting lineup appears set for the 28th-ranked Americans. Timmy Chandler is set to make his competitive international debut as right back in place of injured Steve Cherundolo. Chandler, a German-American, would be tied to the U.S. team once he plays.

The Americans, seeking their seventh straight World Cup berth, play three of their first four qualifiers on the road. They host Costa Rica on March 22 at Commerce City, Colo., then play at Mexico four days later and at Jamaica on June 7.

“Every game in World Cup qualifying is going to be a challenge, but we see a team that is growing, a team that is kind of improving,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously, these game are all about points. You need to get your points in to qualify.”

The U.S. clinched its berth in 2009 with a 3-2 win at Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano. That was played at night, while Wednesday’s kickoff is at 3 p.m. local time in what figures to be afternoon heat. With the 59th-ranked Catrachos seeking their second straight World Cup berth — and just third ever — the Honduran government declared the afternoon a national holiday.

“The whole country stops just for this game, and I think it’s hard for us as Americans to fathom -- but it does. It’s their Super Bowl,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said.

The top three teams in the six-nation final round, which also includes Panama, qualify for the 32-team field at next year’s tournament in Brazil. The fourth-place finisher advances to a playoff for another berth, likely against New Zealand.

The U.S. is 3-0-1 at Estadio Olimpico. The general goal in qualifying is to win at home and pick up points on the road.

“It makes you feel like if you can get a few draws, then you’re staring home in the face,” Howard said.

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