After a year that saw him lose his place on the U.S. national team, the midfielder capped an impressive return to the team with a strong showing in Tuesday's 2-0 win over El Tri.COLUMBUS, Ohio -- He may be a little older, have a little less hair, and may have been battling a case of pink eye, but Landon Donovan looked like the Donovan of old in many ways against Mexico on Tuesday night.
The U.S. national team star was once again a key catalyst in a major game, and once again found a way to get the better of a long-time rival. Donovan scored a goal and had an assist in a 2-0 win to cap a summer of redemption that saw him go from outcast to key figure in a matter of months.
The USA’s all-time leader in both goals (57) and assists (57) set up Eddie Johnson's opener and had the game-clinching goal to book the team’s place in a seventh straight World Cup, and set the stage for Donovan to potentially play in his fourth World Cup.
“I firmly believe that life’s happening the way it’s supposed to and I’m meant to be here right now, and I’m glad I could be a part of this,” Donovan said after the match.
Donovan’s existential look at his current position is understandable after what the past year has been like for the midfielder. His decision to take a break from the game cost him his place on the national team, and for a while there was some real uncertainty about whether he would regain that place.
“We always said that Landon is an important part of our team, and the things that he went through were his decision and we were totally fine with that,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “But he also had to understand that he’s not getting anything for granted. He has to work his way back, and fight his way back, and that’s what he did with the Gold Cup to start with, and now coming here.
“He understands the message clearly that nobody has a spot guaranteed, no matter what,” Klinsmann said. “It’s all down to performance. Every game is down to performance.
“That’s why we’ve doubled the position, and put pressure on every starter, and every game gives us new challenges,” Klinsmann continued. “And (Donovan) understood that. He’s smart. He understands the moment. What he did tonight was big. Not only with his experience, and scoring the goal, but it was also that he understood in certain moments to chase back, and help defend, and do all the work that is necessary on the international level if you want to succeed.”
Donovan’s overall effort was key to the U.S. team’s ability to frustrate Mexico defensively, and pressure them offensively. He looked like the Donovan of old, and made his recent comments about playing the best soccer of his career look more believable. The stats actually back up that assertion, with his goal and assist on Tuesday night helping him set a new personal national team record for total points in a calendar year (eight goals and eight assists in 2013).
“We said that when he was in Cambodia hiking, or wherever the hell he was,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said when asked whether Donovan ever surprises him. “He’s a guy that, when he’s on the field, he puts fear in the opponent.
“You can’t double down on Deuce (Clint Dempsey), or mark him out of the game, when you have to worry about Landon, and it frees up Eddie to do his thing, or Jozy [Altidore],” Howard added. “He’s a guy who gives you a seven or eight out of 10 every game, and he can just be counted on for that, and that’s not easy to come by.”
What Donovan has done in the last two months, both at the Gold Cup in July and in Columbus, has reminded us all why he is considered the best player in national team history, and why even though he is older now at 31, and had to regain his place on the national team after temporarily losing it, Donovan can still be counted on to deliver in the biggest of matches.
“They’re experienced players, they’ve played these games before, and they know what these games are about, and I expect their leadership and expect them to carry us through difficult moments,” Klinsmann said. “They took it on. Landon took it on.”