ARLINGTON, Texas – The question was perfectly logical, if not a bit difficult to contemplate completely: “Is this the best you’ve ever played?”
Landon Donovan sighed a little, glanced down quickly at the concrete floor deep in the inner reaches of Cowboys Stadium after the latest US romp, a 3-1 dismantling of Honduras, and then delivered the stock answer that’s been his calling card this Gold Cup.
“I’m enjoying myself.”
And rote repetition or not, that’s certainly music to the ears of United States national team fans who wondered if the dynamic, driven and utterly dominant Donovan who terrorized international competition for more than a decade would ever be back to his old self.
The scary thing is that he may be even better after recharging his emotional and physical batteries with a much-analyzed sabbatical that seems to have accomplished exactly what the 31-year-old hoped for when he made the decision to step away from the game. A decision that, it’s worth remembering, was to the chagrin of USMNT fans, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena alike.
“I think it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt, and the most enjoyable it’s felt in a long time,” Donovan continued after his standard opener was out of the way. “When that’s the case, I play well.”
So well, in fact, that the plaudits have been almost exhausted after yet another banner night for the player who’s clearly established himself as the class of this tournament.
After assisting on Eddie Johnson’s opening goal to bring his tournament total to an eye-popping seven, Donovan finished off the Hondurans with a pair of goals that tied him for the tournament lead with five, extended his Gold Cup record to 18 and claimed third place on the all-time CONCACAF goal-scoring chart with 56.
These days, Klinsmann can’t help but grin when talking about the player he famously brought to Bayern Munich. The best player in U.S. Soccer history is playing like it again, and yet his boss continues to demand even more.
“If you have [Donovan’s] qualities, you’re always going to be measured on the maximum he could offer you,” Klinsmann told reporters in his postgame press conference. “I told him that in our conversations. I measure you and your benchmark is the best Landon Donovan ever. I’m not taking anything less than that, and he’s trying to catch up with that.
“Give him more games. Give him time. Obviously now every game helps him. Tonight another performance that was wonderful to watch, so it’s good for us. It gives us more options.”
Being an “option” is not a role someone like Donovan is accustomed to, but maybe that’s part of what’s made this Gold Cup rejuvenation possible.
The pressure of years past has dissipated. Without their former talisman, the US still managed to flourish. They don’t necessarily need him. For the first time in years, Donovan can just play. And perhaps for the first time in years, his appetite for soccer is truly voracious as well.
DaMarcus Beasley is almost certainly the man who knows Donovan best on this Gold Cup team. Their history goes back to Bradenton, back to the U-17 World Cup, back to being young men – children, really – dealing with immense expectations and the pressure of embarking on trailblazing careers.
And when Beasley’s been asked about his long-time running partner, as has happened countless times over the past month, he scoffs at any hint of astonishment surrounding his return to form. To him, it was clear Donovan would be back at his best if and when he wanted to be.
“This no surprise to me. This is what Landon does,” Beasley said. “He thrives in this kind of tournament, he thrives when people start doubting him. He doesn’t worry about the media. He doesn’t worry what people say. He just goes out there and plays football. That’s what I applaud him for, and he’s shown in this tournament that there is no doubt about [whether] he’ll be on the World Cup team.”
Of course, that decision is Klinsmann’s alone to make, and it won’t come until late August when qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico loom large. The timelier question now is whether Beasley and Donovan will raise the Gold Cup trophy together Sunday in Chicago.
As always, the German will ask for more from the man who’s clearly reestablished himself as a key cog in the USMNT setup. But does Donovan have more to give?
“Hopefully,” he said. “Hopefully Sunday.”