United States 3,

Costa Rica 0

As the U.S. national soccer team moves closer to an inevitable berth in the 2006 World Cup, it is becoming abundantly clear which two veteran players will guide the Americans to Germany: Landon Donovan and Kasey Keller.

Donovan continued his masterful play in qualifying with a pair of goals, the first coming in the sixth minute, and Keller made several superb saves during the tensest moments of Saturday night's 3-0 victory over Costa Rica before 40,586 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

"Clearly, we started the game the way we wanted," Donovan said. "Scoring the goal is huge; it takes pressure off everyone. We weren't necessarily our best, but we did the things we needed to win the game. Now we put ourselves in a great position to go to Panama [Wednesday], and if we can find a way to win there, we're pretty close to on our way to Germany."

The Americans improved to 3-1-0 in their 10-game final-round schedule and, with three of six teams ensured World Cup berths and Panama (0-2-2), Trinidad and Tobago (1-2-1), Costa Rica (1-2-1) and Guatemala (1-2-1) struggling, Mexico (3-0-1) and the United States should settle things by Labor Day.

Despite the wide final margin Saturday, the Americans had plenty of troubling moments in the second half and were only able to preserve their precarious lead because Keller, 35, made one breathtaking save after another. Donovan's second goal 17 minutes into the second half and Brian McBride's 87th-minute rebound on a sequence created by Donovan eased the tension.

"I think Kasey Keller's play in the early part of the second half was the difference in the match," Coach Bruce Arena said. "Kasey's reactions on the line are fantastic. He's still every bit as quick as he was five years ago. . . . They created some great chances and Kasey was there to respond."

While the U.S. defense yielded a dangerous number of opportunities, the attack created an abundance of chances. Arena made the unusual move of starting three forwards, pushing DaMarcus Beasley up front with McBride and Josh Wolff, and allowed Donovan to run the show from a central midfield role.

Arena wanted to get Beasley, who has been recovering from a knee injury, into the lineup, but he didn't want him buzzing all over the field as he normally does. So by moving Beasley forward, Arena was able to utilize his dazzling skills without overextending him.

The result was an assertive attack and a quick goal.

Donovan pushed the ball wide on the right to Steve Ralston, who crossed into the center of the box. Costa Rica's Gilberto Martinez had the first touch, but it wasn't a good one -- a deflection left for Donovan to smash from 17 yards into the upper left corner.

Donovan, who bailed out of Germany after just two months to return to MLS, has recorded a point in 11 of 12 qualifiers over the last year, the only exception being the meaningless semifinal-round finale vs. Jamaica last fall.

The U.S. team continued to create scoring opportunities -- Carlos Bocanegra a sliding redirection deep in the box, Beasley's angled bid from 10 yards, Wolff's partial breakaway -- but it didn't translate into a wider lead.

Costa Rica's only serious threat of the half was when Douglas Sequeira's apparent goal was disallowed because of an offside call. The Ticos looked sharper after halftime and tested Keller repeatedly. He made a sprawling save on Jafet Soto's short volley, got down quickly to block Alonso Solis's 16-yard bid and then made a remarkable left-handed save on Soto's powerful header.

"I don't know what we were doing -- we were sleeping in the second half -- and he makes two, three, maybe four incredible saves," Donovan said. "They hit it and you think it's in. Being a forward, I think it's in."

The anxiety was put to rest in the 62nd minute. Wolff crossed to McBride, who was making a near-post run. Alvaro Mesen made a diving save on McBride's diving header, but left the rebound for Donovan to deposit from inside the six-yard box.

Donovan's left-side charge led to the final goal, Clint Dempsey having his shot deflected by Mesen and McBride volleying in the rebound for his 27th international goal.

U.S. Notes: Sequeira was ejected during injury time. . . .

Bobby Convey, made his first U.S. start in nine months. . . .

Greg Vanney, Cory Gibbs (knee), Oguchi Onyewu (knee), John O'Brien and Eddie Johnson (toe) were scratched.

Midfielder Landon Donovan (two goals) stays on top of goalkeeper Alvaro Messen in a qualifier. The U.S. is close to clinching a spot in the World Cup.