The United States came into the 2013 Gold Cup as the overwhelming favorite and so far has delivered on expectations by reaching the tournament final once more.
That much was expected.
What wasn't expected at all, however, was the tournament of 31-year-old Landon Donovan, who has emerged from the wilderness to be one of the USMNT's best players so far in the competition. Few thought it could happen; even fewer thought it actually would happen.
But the reality is Donovan has been the star of the 2013 Gold Cup.
And goodness knows the tournament needed it.
Consisting largely of national B-teams and countries few had even heard of, the Gold Cup wasn't expected to provide many highlights.
Bleacher Report's Jerrad Peters wrote prior to the start of the competition that, in all likelihood, the tournament would "feature a collection of B-squads assembled by national associations you get the feeling would rather be doing anything else with their summers."
After watching the group stages, it's hard to disagree with that sentiment.
Then, Donovan started to step up.
The all-time leading scorer in United States soccer history, Donovan wasn't as productive recently as he had been in years gone by. The former Everton midfielder was being played in a slew of different positions as coaches tried to find where he would be most effective. For the most part, Jurgen Klinsmann hadn't yet found where that was, leaving Donovan on the outer of any World Cup squad.
And despite the fact that Klinsmann won't confirm Donovan will (or won't) be on his way to Brazil next year, he's confident the midfielder is starting to hit top form.
Per the Associated Press (h/t USA Today), Klinsmann said, "I have told him in our conversations that 'I measure you. Your benchmark is the best Landon Donovan ever.' I'm not taking anything less than that. And he is trying to catch up with that. Give him more games. Give him time."
It started with the USMNT's quarterfinal against El Salvador.
Donovan netted a goal and produced three assists in the big win. While it wasn't the perfect performance, it was certainly a step in the right direction.
He was deadly with the ball at his feet and showed he still has the skills to beat defenders one-on-one. The 31-year-old was back to his wiry self and was more than capable of opening up a defense with his masterful vision and timing—something that had been lacking from his game.
Donovan followed that up with an even better performance against Honduras—producing the assist for Eddie Johnson's first goal. He then calmly finished the USMNT's second goal before arriving in timely fashion to tap home his side's third (and game-clinching) goal. Neither goal was particularly spine-tingling, but they showed Donovan was starting to regain his knack of being in the right place at the right time—something that was confirmed by his overall match performance (per ESPN's Paul Carr).
There has been no player more deadly than Donovan in the Gold Cup so far, and he'll no doubt be the focus of Panama's defense when they meet in the final.
12 - Landon Donovan has created 12 chances from open play in the 2013 Gold Cup, the most in the tournament. Pivotal.— OptaJack (@OptaJack) July 24, 2013
Just how the 31-year-old will fare in the final still remains to be seen.
Given how stellar his last few performances have been, it's somewhat unlikely Donovan will be able to better his goal-and-assist ratio.
However, I wouldn't put it past him, as he seeks to cap off an otherwise career-changing tournament in brilliant style.
One thing is for certain: However he performs against Panama, he's already changed the tournament.
Donovan has already given the Gold Cup the talking points it desperately needed, and he has given the United States the attacking flair it was starting to miss.
Donovan—in just a handful of games—has seemingly earned himself a World Cup berth once more and proved his doubters wrong.
That—regardless of whether the U.S. clinches its fifth tournament victory—will be the biggest talking point from the Gold Cup this year. And rightly so.
Donovan has not only stole the show; he's made it worth watching once more.
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