BALTIMORE — There was a moment Sunday after Landon Donovan scored his 53rd international goal that seemed not just cleansing but almost Biblical in its imagery. The rain was falling at M&T Bank Stadium, and the U.S. was leading El Salvador, 5-1. As he ran to celebrate, Donovan closed his eyes, stretched his arms out wide and fell to his knees, turning his head to the heavens and opening his mouth to drink the water from above.
Absolution for his sins? Maybe not. I'm not going to suggest here that taking three months off from soccer is a sin. It might even be the best thing that ever happened to Donovan. But in the code of U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Donovan had to serve penance for choosing not to play for the Stars and Stripes. In order to get a spot back on the U.S. World Cup qualifying team, Donovan first had to play in this Gold Cup, which is made up largely of B-squads. Klinsmann wouldn't let the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer be captain, either, and wouldn't hand him much in the way of anything.
This is the code.
And yet after Donovan had four assists to go along with that goal Sunday, adding to his game-changing performances in this tournament, it has become increasingly untenable for anyone, including Klinsmann, to question whether Donovan deserves to be on the U.S. World Cup qualifying team and in Brazil next summer.
He does. End of discussion.
We all have eyes.
"There's no debate," defender DaMarcus Beasley said after Sunday's game. "For me, Landon has grown throughout the tournament. I didn't think it could get better than the last game, but it just did. Landon is being Landon. He's happy. He's excited to be here, and you see it in how he plays. He's assisting, he's scoring. And for me, now that I'm a defender, he's defending. I couldn't be happier for him."
"I don't think [Donovan] has to 'prove' anything to anybody," U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando said. "We all know what he can do. The way he came into this camp, his attitude and the teammate he's been, there's no question he can play and contribute to the team. If he continues to do what he's doing out there on the field for us during this Gold Cup, you've got to think he's going to be a part of [the World Cup qualifying team]. But that's why I'm a player and not a coach and don't have to make those decisions."
Defender Clarence Goodson seemed almost disgusted to even be asked whether Donovan could bring something to the table for the U.S. once World Cup qualifying starts again in September.
"That's a silly question," Goodson said. "That's just a silly question."
See? An untenable debate.
My belief is that, behind closed doors, Klinsmann thinks so, too. But when I pressed him on it publicly Sunday, Klinsmann wouldn't go far enough to say Donovan has made it all the way back. Not quite yet. Codes and everything.
"For us, we take it one game at a time," Klinsmann said. "I think Landon proved again today how valuable he is and how he can make a difference. This game was also for us coaches important to see who's a difference-maker out there, who maybe when things go a little bit the wrong way takes the game on their feet. And Landon was one of those players, so we are very pleased."
Donovan's moments of quality were on display throughout Sunday's game. Showing some training-ground creativity, he combined with teammates on short corners that led to two U.S. goals. He fed Joe Corona on his goal and Mix Diskerud on his, and when it came time to make a killer run through a demoralized Salvadorean defense, well, Donovan did that too and finished off the scoring.
He didn't have a perfect game, at least in the sense that his finishing could have been better on some occasions. But it's realistic to think Donovan can bring this influence to the A-squad and still be a difference-maker at the World Cup level. His triumphant return is just one more positive development for a U.S. team that continues to be on a roll.