Commentary: Is Landon Donovan "back" in the USMNT fold after Guatemala win? Not so fast
Or at least that’s what the headlines told us last Friday night, after the US national team shredded a hapless Guatemala squad 6-0 in San Diego.
Landon Donovan is back.
That would be nice, if it were true. But it’s not. What is true is that Donovan has been brought back into the national team for this Gold Cup, and he still has a lot to prove.
He is the greatest attacking player in American soccer history, but what Donovan did in the decade-plus before he took his four-month sabbatical from the game means little to the USMNT right now. All that matters now is what he can show on the field in the next three-to-six months. What Donovan did in the past – all those great moments, all those goals and assists – is for sentimentalists. Those moments will get him to the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame, but not to Brazil.
Donovan’s performance against Guatemala was but one small step in the right direction. He got himself back on the field in a US uniform, showed some flashes of what he’s provided in the past – darting runs, unpredictable changes of pace, clever passes – but it must be remembered the game was a friendly, a scrimmage, against a makeshift Guatemala team.
The next step in the road comes tonight, when the US faces Belize in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (11 pm ET, Fox Soccer | Live chat on MLSsoccer.com). The level needs to be heightened simply because it’s a real game with real points on the line. There will be three substitutions not six. Belize will be trying to make the game difficult.
The inconvenient truth about Donovan’s return is that more than having to prove that he’s still got soccer left in his feet, Donovan needs to prove to his teammates – not just the ones playing in the Gold Cup, but also those who’ve returned to their clubs – that he’s all in.
It is not normally acceptable to call a player’s heart into question, but Donovan left that door wide open with the timing of his sabbatical and the way he articulated the reason for the break.
“I don’t feel any obligation to play,” Donovan said last October. “I think I’ve put a lot into this whole thing. I’m proud of what I’ve done and what I’ve been a part of. But I can’t fake it.”
Not feeling obligated to play – which is his right – hurt the LA Galaxy’s chances to advance in the CONCACAF Champions League and could have done the same thing to the US team.
But the players on the USMNT moved on without him. They battled together in defeat in the heat of Honduras, fought for a win in the snow against Costa Rica, defended as a unit in a 0-0 draw with Mexico in the smog and altitude of Azteca Stadium.
Then, more recently, when Donovan had declared himself fit and ready to return, the US team responded to coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to dance with the guys who’d gotten the team through those tough qualifying moments. Nine points in three games, winning at Jamaica and at home against Panama and Honduras. None of those results came easily.
Looking back, the easy thing for Klinsmann to do would have been to call Donovan in for those last three qualifiers. No one would’ve second-guessed the manager for that decision.
But just as Donovan let everyone know with his words that he wasn’t all in last October, Klinsmann let it be known with his actions that he wasn’t taking anything less than all-in.
Was Donovan’s soccer ability missed? Probably. But to go back and watch the tapes of those games is to see US players running extra hard, throwing themselves in front of shots, pushing one another every step of the way. Because that’s what national teams do in games that really matter. There’s an understanding that you may not connect on every pass or finish every chance, but you will not leave anything on the field when it comes to blood and sweat.
So that’s what’s to be seen in the coming months with Donovan. After the Guatemala friendly, he talked about how he was enjoying the game and feeling less pressure. That’s nice.
But chances are, some time during this Gold Cup, the pressure will be back on. Maybe it will be when the US play Costa Rica in Hartford next week. Or maybe it will come in the second round, or the semifinals, or in the final, as the US tries to win its first Gold Cup since 2007.
Pressure comes with wearing the national team jersey, and most players say that’s why they play, to feel their heart racing and their blood pumping.
We’ve certainly seen Donovan in the middle of that on many occasions the last dozen or so years. But then he told us he needed to get away from it for a while. Because he wasn’t all in.
So, Donovan’s not back yet, much as some wanted to make that proclamation last week. And we won’t know for sure he’s back until we’ve seen him grind in some real games.
If last Saturday was the first step, then tonight is just the second.
Brazil is many steps away.