On Saturday morning, as the U.S. national soccer team was awaiting its World Cup qualifier that evening in San Salvador, Coach Bruce Arena took 22-year-old Landon Donovan aside for a brief but poignant meeting.

"He told me they were considering me as captain," Donovan recalled yesterday. "He had talked to the older guys and they had no problem with it. And then he asked me if I'd like to do it. Yeah, I told him I'd be honored. It never even crossed my mind that they would ask me. I was very proud."

With longtime captain Claudio Reyna sidelined with a thigh injury, Arena turned to one of his younger players to guide the team in a crucial match being played in a treacherous environment. Donovan is expected to wear the captain's armband again tomorrow night when the United States faces Panama at RFK Stadium. A victory would seal the Americans' passage into next year's final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

In soccer, the captaincy for an international match is a substantial honor, one that is debated and dissected on a regular basis in Europe and South America. On Saturday, it seemed logical for a veteran such as goalkeeper Kasey Keller or forward Brian McBride to inherit the role. But Arena said he felt Donovan deserved to prove his leadership qualities -- even though he was the 10th-oldest player in the 11-man starting lineup.

"He did great," said Arena, who also attributed the decision to Donovan's fluency in Spanish in order to communicate with Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres. "It's important for us to have him step up each and every game and play at the level he's capable of playing. He certainly responded and played well on Saturday. . . . He did well as a player and as a captain."

Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, also 22, were the most influential players on the field, using their quickness and confident runs to carve space in the beleaguered Salvadoran defense throughout the match. In the 75th minute, Donovan helped put the finishing touches on the 2-0 victory by collecting Beasley's pass deep in the box and crossing the ball past goalkeeper Misael Alfaro to Eddie Johnson, 20, for an easy finish.

"Landon is a very talented player and we need him to take a leadership role," veteran defender Gregg Berhalter said. "He's capable of doing that, stepping up and producing results for us. He's worked hard and progressed well in a short amount of time. . . . When you're wearing the captain's band, it doesn't mean you have to be yelling and screaming. Claudio is a perfect case; he leads by example and there's no reason that can't be Landon's role, too."

Of the captain's responsibilities, Donovan said: "We've got guys on the field who can lead and who know how to do it. I did want to take more responsibility and do a little more because I should anyway. Bruce has talked to me about that. We all should take more responsibility. We all need to be more confident and show that we're better than these teams when we're on the road. Sometimes we get in these dogfights that aren't necessary sometimes."

Since the 2002 World Cup, when he scored twice and played a role in another as the Americans soared to the quarterfinals, Donovan's play has become vital to the U.S. team's success. In the previous three games of this qualifying round, he set up Brian Ching's last-minute equalizer at Jamaica; scored the clincher in the first meeting with El Salvador, a 2-0 win in Foxboro, Mass.; and contributed to Cobi Jones's late tying goal at Panama.

While Donovan's national team career likely will last for many more years, his days in MLS appear to be numbered. The Redlands, Calif., native has been a member of the San Jose Earthquakes since 2001, when MLS acquired him on loan from German power Bayer Leverkusen. But Leverkusen says it will recall him late this year. Donovan has resisted the Bundesliga club's overtures in recent years, but this time the move seems more likely.

"I've kind of been in limbo, but I think it's getting close to getting done," Donovan said of the Leverkusen move. "We've had really good talks. I'm 50-50 right now. I wouldn't mind trying [to play in Europe again], but I want it to be the right situation. If it doesn't work out for whatever reason, I'd love to be here, too. If I can have the experience and go, maybe for a short time and see how I fit in, I have no problem with it.

"I just want to get to a point where everything is just defined and I know where I'm going to be for a long time, so I can settle in and not have to worry about it."

U.S. Notes: Goalkeeper Jonny Walker and midfielder Eddie Gaven were not recalled this week and will remain with the MetroStars. Defender Cory Gibbs, who's suspended from Wednesday's game because of yellow cards, has rejoined the Dallas Burn. The moves leave Arena with 20 players, 18 of whom will be on the game roster against Panama.

Landon Donovan, catching up with Jamaica's Fabian Davis, has taken a leadership role since Claudio Reyna's injury.