BALTIMORE, Md. -- Three thoughts from the U.S. national team's 5-1 CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal rout of El Salvador on Sunday in Baltimore:
Donovan, Body and Soul -- With the World Cup still more than a year away, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann felt he had the time to send his message to Landon Donovan following the player's sabbatical. If Donovan could demonstrate the sort of consistency and commitment Klinsmann demands from each of his charges, the national team's all-time leading scorer would earn his second chance.
If there is any image from Sunday's game that might endure (aside from a blonde Eddie Johnson powering home a header with his first touch of the game), it will be Donovan's rain-soaked, Shawshank Redemption-style celebration following his 78th-minute goal.
Perhaps Donovan's lone weakness as a player has been that he has trouble faking it -- if his confidence or mood are flagging, his performance likely will suffer. That's why he needed a break this spring. But this effervescent Gold Cup run with the U.S. (three goals and six assists in four games) is an indication that he's recaptured his rhythm. His emotional, eyes-to-the-heavens reaction to his goal at M&T Bank Stadium demonstrated that his love has returned as well. (As has the fun -- at one point a fan threw sunglasses at Donovan as he prepared to take a corner kick and he started to put them on).
Donovan remains the U.S.'s most consistently creative player by a significant margin. He challenges defenses from open play and set pieces and is a threat both as a set-up man and finisher. He clearly is the MVP of the Gold Cup so far and at this rate will feature prominently in his fourth World Cup next summer.
Strength on the Flanks -- It seems like ages ago that Klinsmann's wings were barren. Thankfully for the U.S., the days of the sturdy but static three-man midfield appear to be over.
Both Joe Corona and Jose Torres, who started out wide on Sunday, were outstanding and allowed the Americans to attack El Salvador from a variety of spots. The center was left to Mixx Diskerud and Kyle Beckerman, whose industry and focus on possession represented the U.S. program's strength in that area of the field.
Corona is maturing quickly and looks like one of those players for whom the game unfolds more slowly and clearly than everyone around him. Add the increasing number of options available out wide, it looks like the Americans' creativity will be coming from an area that once seemed neglected.
Graham Zusi is the talented incumbent on the right, Brek Shea still has game-breaking potential and Brad Davis remains in the picture. The likes of Donovan and Eddie Johnson can play there when first-choice forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey return, and Fabian Johnson may be even better in midfield than he is in back.
Klinsmann and the U.S. are finding their strengths.
Prohibitive favorite -- Failing to win the Gold Cup always is a disappointment for U.S. Soccer. This summer, it would be a massive gut-punch if the Americans don't take a fifth regional title. This is a team in form.
Entering Wednesday's semifinal with nine consecutive wins and a goal differential of 16-3 after four Gold Cup matches, the U.S. clearly is the class of the competition. Mexico's laborious 1-0 squeaker over Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday only accentuates that fact. The U.S. is far deeper and more dangerous than any of its rivals.
Mexico's roster may not feature as many 'A team' regulars as Klinsmann's, but a year ago many worried that El Tri's depth would make them impossible to challenge in the near future. Mexico was the Gold Cup, Olympic, and Under-17 World Cup champion and had talent to spare. The U.S. was aging and out of ideas.
Apparently the panic was premature. Mexico has been unable to maintain its momentum and the U.S., it turns out, has some talent of its own. A year ago, observers might have given Mexico's 'B-' team a prohibitive edge over a 'B+' counterpart from the U.S. But this Gold Cup demonstrates that the gap isn't as wide as many feared.