ARLINGTON, Texas -- There's been a lot of talk in this CONCACAF Gold Cup about whether certain players are "back" for the United States. Is Stuart Holden "back" to where he was before injuries took their toll? Is Landon Donovan "back" to being the Donovan of 2010, the one who scored big-time World Cup goals and put a nation on his shoulders?
But those questions don't reflect what the players themselves are thinking, to say nothing of their demanding coach, Jurgen Klinsmann. If you ask Holden, who played all 90 minutes of the U.S.' 3-1 semifinal win here against Honduras, he wants to come back better than he was before.
And if you ask Klinsmann about Donovan, just having him back on the World Cup qualifying team after a year away isn't what the coach is expecting. Far from it. "I told him that in our conversations: I'm measuring you," said Klinsmann after Donovan provided two goals and an assist in another sterling performance. "Your benchmark is the best Landon Donovan ever. I'm not taking anything less than that."
Donovan is 31 now, mind you, and Klinsmann may seem like he's expecting too much. But when you don't set a ceiling on what you ask for, there's no limit to what you can do.
Klinsmann and Donovan have a fascinating relationship. When Klinsmann took the U.S. job in 2011, the player he knew the best (by far) was Donovan. After all, Klinsmann had put himself on the line when he was coaching Bayern Munich in 2009 and brought Donovan in as his main midseason loan acquisition and transfer target. Donovan didn't end up staying at Bayern, and Klinsmann was out as manager himself within months. But the relationship seemed warm between them.
Until recently, though, it has been more uncomfortable with Klinsmann as the national team coach and Donovan as a player who was trying to rediscover his joy for the game. In January, Klinsmann spoke publicly of trying (and failing) to convince Donovan even to stop by and say hello in Los Angeles during the national team camp there.
But now, finally, Klinsmann is talking openly about Donovan and the World Cup qualifying team in the same sentence. It has just taken a terrific Gold Cup performance by Donovan to do so.
"I think we are all very pleased with the way he's playing and the way he's proving a point that he's hungry to come back into our picture and obviously going forward toward the World Cup qualifiers," Klinsmann said on Wednesday. "I think with every game he wants to prove that and show that, and he's doing very well -- not only on the field, but also off the field, how he reintegrated himself into the group."
Klinsmann himself may not be on the field for the Gold Cup final against Panama on Sunday in Chicago. He was dismissed late in the game by Costa Rican referee Wálter Quesada for apparently being too demonstrative in protesting a lack of a call for what Klinsmann thought was a foul on DaMarcus Beasley. The CONCACAF Disciplinary Committee will meet to decide if Klinsmann will miss Sunday's final and issue a decision within 24 to 48 hours after reading the referee's match report.
"It was just a reaction out of frustration," Klinsmann said afterward, "because fouls have added up throughout the last half an hour. One really, really bad [one] right before our third goal, and then came this foul on Beaz with two guys going into him from behind. And I just kind of overboiled it."
Klinsmann giggled as he said that. "Obviously you shouldn't then throw the ball or hit it on the ground," he continued. "I apologize for that reaction. It was not meant against the referee or anybody. It was just frustration, because you feel the health of your player in that moment."
"He sticks up for his players," Beasley said of Klinsmann afterward. "I don't have any complaint about that. But hopefully CONCACAF sees that it wasn't too malicious and he can be on the sideline with us on Sunday."
Beasley, too, is another player who is supposedly trying to get "back" to his old self on the national team, a return that few people would have predicted at the start of 2013. But that's the beauty of subverting the "he's back" storyline, whether it's Beasley or Holden or Donovan. None of us will ever be exactly the same as we were years ago at a fixed point in time. But you can always be better.