Shortly before his long-anticipated return to the United States national team, veteran midfielder Landon Donovan told USSoccer.com that he saw his call-up to Jurgen Klinsmann's squad as "an opportunity." After seeing what Donovan can still do for the red, white and blue, Klinsmann must feel the same way.
Donovan, the U.S. team's all-time leader in goals, assists and caps, returned to the U.S. lineup Friday night as Klinsmann's Yanks routed Guatemala 6-0 in San Diego in a tune-up friendly for this month's CONCACAF Gold Cup. It was the 31-year-old Donovan's first appearance for the U.S. since August 2012, when he played in the historic 1-0 victory over Mexico in Mexico City.
Following the Los Angeles Galaxy's triumph in the MLS Cup final last December, Donovan took a break from soccer, citing exhaustion and ruling himself out of key World Cup qualifiers with the national team. In March, he announced his intention to return to the team, but until Friday, he hadn't been included in Klinsmann's plans.
All that has now changed.
Donovan's first game back was a productive one, with two goals, a key contribution on a third and a starring role in the second-half rally that led to the rout.
With the U.S. leading 1-0 after a sluggish first half, Donovan provided the inspiration for a blistering 17-minute stretch that saw the hosts bag four goals.
The surged started and ended with Donovan, who won and then converted a penalty in the 55th minute to put the U.S. ahead 2-0. The goal raised his team-record career total to 50 international goals, but he wasn't done there.
In the 71st minute, Donovan drove through the heart of Guatemala's midfield and defense before laying off for Chris Wondolowski, who scored his first international goal with a classy, low finish. A Guatemalan defender touched Donovan's pass, ruling out an official assist, but the move demonstrated that Donovan's lethal attacking instincts have not diminished.
One minute later, Donovan scored again, volleying into the net impressively from Stuart Holden's cross. With that, Donovan was subbed out after showing precisely why he should still be in Klinsmann's plans, both for the Gold Cup and beyond.
"I was appreciative to be able to have an opportunity to score tonight, especially one that wasn't a penalty," Donovan said, per the Associated Press (via USA Today). "Getting to 50 and beyond means a lot, but results are most important. We certainly got a good one tonight."
Results are important, as Donovan noted, and winning will continue to be the goal for both Donovan and the U.S. in the Gold Cup, starting with Tuesday's match against Belize. But the first part of that quote is also vital at this time.
After staying away from the team for several months, Donovan knows he isn't guaranteed a spot on Klinsmann's World Cup roster next year. That's why he's been talking about opportunity lately, and that's why Friday's performance was so important for him.
"If I was younger, it would bring some pressure or some stress," Donovan told USSoccer.com after being selected for Klinsmann's Gold Cup. "But now, for me, it’s just an opportunity and I want to do well."
That opportunity, obviously, is to earn the right to play in his fourth World Cup. If he keeps playing the way he did Friday, Donovan should and surely will be in Brazil next year.
But after his excellent performance, it's possible to argue that the opportunity cuts both ways. In other words, it might benefit Klinsmann as well.
Throughout his tenure as U.S. coach, Klinsmann has spoken of building depth. Speaking specifically about the national team prospects of Real Salt Lake defender Tony Beltran, Klinsmann told MLSSoccer.com that "What we’re trying to do is to build competition in every position."
With Donovan returning to the picture, Klinsmann could have depth in spades, at least in one position.
Throughout the recent World Cup qualification schedule, Klinsmann has benefited from strong wide midfield play. Sporting Kansas City's Graham Zusi has played well on the right, in Donovan's old spot, to the extent that some have wondered aloud whether Donovan will be able to fight his way back into the team.
After the U.S. won all three June qualifiers, Pro Soccer Talk's Steve Davis argued that while some aspects of Zusi's game are inferior to Donovan's, Zusi has made a strong case to hold his place permanently.
And Donovan himself praised Zusi after the two faced off in April, telling LAGalaxy.com, “I think that he’s done a great job; he’s someone that deserves to be where he’s at and I look forward to continuing to battle back and forth with him and continue to push each other.”
Unless he holds an exceptionally long grudge, Klinsmann will look forward to the exact same thing.
If, of course, Donovan keeps up his good form at the Gold Cup.