SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Back in July, when Landon Donovan was busy making a mockery of Gold Cup competition, Jurgen Klinsmann set the benchmark for the United States’ most decorated – but recently enigmatic – player.
Good wasn’t enough. Neither was great. Klinsmann, ever the motivator, demanded “the best Landon Donovan ever.” Anything less was deemed unacceptable – and this was following a two-goal, one-assist performance against Honduras in the semifinals.
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Less than two months later, after lifting the Gold Cup and scoring five goals in four games for the LA Galaxy, Donovan believes Klinsmann may have gotten his wish just in time for crucial World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico.
“I guess if I had to evaluate, I’d say this is the best I’ve ever played,” he told reporters on Thursday ahead of Friday’s match at Estadio Nacional (10 pm ET, beIN Sport). “The energy I had when I was 20 is pretty close to being matched now, but I have the experience of all the years. Everything has really slowed down for me now. I see everything very clearly on the field. Everything sort of makes sense.
“Not every play is perfect, but I feel like every time I get the ball I have a real chance to impact the game. That’s a great feeling. I’m just going to keep enjoying it.”
US national team fans are certainly enjoying the prospect of adding an in-form Donovan to a side that didn’t seem to particularly need him during the first six matches of CONCACAF’s Hexagonal stage.
Without their all-time leading scorer and cap leader, the US reeled off four wins and earned an historic draw at Estadio Azteca after an opening match loss in Honduras, placing them at the top of the CONCACAF pack with 13 points and the World Cup well within reach.
That momentum carried over into the summer slate as well, as Donovan eased back into the mix with a Gold Cup squad that contributed six wins to the Americans’ record (and ongoing) streak of 12 straight victories.
And while he may have gladly accepted a complementary role with the World Cup qualifying team after last winter’s walkabout put his national team future in doubt, there’s no doubt he’s still the American who inspires the most reverence among the US’ regional opponents.
That level of respect also extends to his US teammates, a group Donovan was absent from for the better part of a year. He’s had no trouble blending back in.
“If we want to play more than three games at a World Cup, we need Landon,” Michael Bradley said. “Whether that’s as a starter as a reserve, who knows. The same holds true for any of us. If we’re going to be a team that goes to Brazil next year and has a real chance of making a good run at things, we need him around.”
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Although his value is pretty much unassailable at this point – a veritable 180 after his commitment (rightly or wrongly) came into question earlier this year – how exactly Donovan will impact the team on the field remains a bit fluid.
Klinsmann listed the 31-year-old as a forward on his 23-man roster, and Donovan said he is comfortable in that role on Thursday before emphasizing that he’s happy to play wherever needed as the US chase their seventh consecutive World Cup berth.
With Jozy Altidore’s status up in the air as he works his way back from a hamstring injury, the opportunity to rejoin the starting XI could come as soon as Friday.
“I’m just excited to be back here and be a part of it, but I’m not a 19-year-old where I’m just happy to be here," Donovan said. "I want to really help. That doesn’t have to mean on the field, but I want to contribute and I want to help the team get to where it wants to go.
“You want to help all the young guys who have never played in a World Cup, you them to have that feeling where they’re on the field celebrating together because they just qualified for a World Cup. … I want to be a part of that.”