Landon Donovan is fighting for a place on a fourth World Cup roster. (Tony Avelar/AP)
STANFORD, Calif. – When Landon Donovan took a few months off toward the beginning of 2013, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann left him off the World Cup qualifying roster and said that the program’s all-time leading scorer would have to earn his way back on. The benefit of the doubt was gone.
Donovan responded. While most first-choice players sat out last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, Donovan dominated it. He scored five goals in six games, won the competition’s golden ball award and led the U.S. to the title.
Now, as the U.S. trains at Stanford University in preparation for three upcoming friendlies and the subsequent World Cup, Donovan’s place is uncertain once again. He said numerous times leading into camp that his seat on the flight to São Paulo isn’t reserved, and there’s evidence that’s the case.
WAHL: How much, financially, is a U.S. World Cup roster spot worth?
In fact, Donovan wasn’t sure he’d even make the preliminary 30-man roster. Klinsmann hadn’t been happy with Donovan’s fitness before the April exhibition against Mexico and his start to the 2014 MLS campaign has been uninspiring. Factor in the competition for places up front (Klinsmann doesn’t see Donovan, 32, as an outside midfielder charged with orchestrating the counterattack) and the whispers that the manager still wonders about Donovan’s mindset, and there’s yet another hurdle between the player and his fourth World Cup.
Donovan is responding again, saying here that he feels invigorated by the competition, that the lingering tendonitis in his knee is “doing OK” and that he’s rising to the challenge so far.
“I feel like my energy has been really good. We track our workload and all that stuff and I’ve been right at the top of all that, so I feel very good about where I’m at,” he said. “I’m in a good place physically, good place mentally. My body feels good and there’s no question that it’s going to be hard at points during this scamp. It’s hard during every one of these camps. It’s always been hard. At the end of it the goal is to be at your absolute peak when June 16 comes around.”
FIGHT FOR 23: Donovan battling among cast of talented forwards
He compared the feeling to that of 2002, when he was a 20-year-old with fewer than two dozen caps to his credit.
“In ’06 and in 2010, I knew for the most part, unless I was awful, that I was going to make the team,” he said Monday. “This time is more similar to ‘02 where I wasn’t sure. So in that way, yes, it’s as competitive as it’s been for me personally in a long time. But I think from a quality standpoint, there’s a lot of quality here and you can really make a case for any of the guys to be a part of the squad, so it’s going to be a difficult decision for the coaches.”
Defender DaMarcus Beasley, who’s been a World Cup teammate of Donovan’s three times, said here that this U.S. squad is the deepest since the one that made a run to the quarterfinals in South Korea.
Like the Gold Cup did last year, this new challenge seems to have invigorated Donovan. He’s appreciating, rather than lamenting, his situation.
“I don’t have that youthful energy and excitement that I did in 2002, but I see the game and I see the situation a lot more clearly now and so I’m able to, I think, enjoy it more in that way. When you’re younger, you’re just sort of going crazy trying to do whatever it takes to make the team and you forget to enjoy it,” he said. “This is my last chance at this, so in that way it keeps it new and exciting for me. It’s always fun to see the younger faces and I’ve had the benefit of being next to a guy all year in L.A. who’s super excited to get this opportunity in Omar Gonzalez, so I’ve been sharing that with him and it makes it exciting for me in that way, too.”
STRAUS: Back in form, Dempsey relishes captaincy as Brazil beckons
While Gonzalez aims for his first World Cup, U.S. veterans are clear about their opinion of Donovan. Last year, Michael Bradley said plainly, “If we're going to play more than three games in Brazil, we need Landon.” This week at Stanford, goalkeeper Tim Howard said, “For me, it’s a very easy equation. If Landon is on the field, he’s our top one or two players … he strikes fear in our opponents.”
Klinsmann, however, isn’t interested in fear that might result from viewing highlights from 2010. The coach paid tribute to Donovan’s achievements before opening camp but made it clear that it’s the present that matters.
“For me this is very, very normal, and again, with all the appreciation, with all the admiration for what he’s done throughout his career, which is extraordinary and deserves the compliments that he gets, but soccer is about what happens today and what you do today, and what you hopefully do tomorrow,” Klinsmann said. “I mention it also very often that we’re not building the group based on the past, we’re building the group based on what we experience and go through together and what we believe, and as of today, is the right decision.”
Donovan said that’s been made clear to him and his teammates and he denied there was any rift with Klinsmann.
“We have a very good understanding of what’s expected and what he wants," he said. "He pushes us hard. He knows what it takes to be a world champion. None of us know that. He understands it very clearly and he pushes us to our limits.”
Donovan hasn’t reached his limit. Not yet. Although there have been times recently when he’s shown the strain of 14 years of almost endless competition and the accompanying pressure and scrutiny, stores of energy and will remain. This camp, he said, is not about reminiscing or pondering his legacy. He’s fueled for one last run.
“I don’t have doubt. I’m very confident in my abilities and I think I’m deserving to be a part of the squad,” he said. "But I have to prove that and I have to earn it.”
2014 World Cup: Michael Bradley breaks down USMNT opponents
US Men's National Team midfielder Michael Bradley speaks with SI senior writer Grant Wahl about his return to MLS, and what he sees in Ghana, Portugal, and Germany as the World Cup approaches.