But Donovan is also a player who freely says that after playing in three World Cups, winning four MLS Cup titles and amassing 138 national team caps, his hunger isn't the same anymore. On Wednesday he spoke of wanting to play two more years with club and country "and then sort of reevaluate it from there," as he put it.
Donovan doesn't give a lot of interviews these days -- and almost never a one-on-one -- but he did sit down with a group of four U.S. journalists for 30 minutes on Wednesday ahead of Saturday's friendly against Scotland in Jacksonville (8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network, Galavisión). Donovan was thoughtful and candid, too. Here are several nuggets from the interview, edited for length and clarity:
Q: How does it feel to be back with the team?
Donovan: It's nice. It's been a long time. You almost forget what it's like to be back in camp. Just seeing a lot of the faces has been nice. I'm excited to play again, because it's been a long time. It's been too long for me.
Q: Did it start to wear on you that it became a stress for various reasons that you weren't able to come in?
Donovan: Yeah. It was frustrating. The end of last year there was a lot of different things going on. In truth I regret a little bit missing one or two of the camps, just because you lose touch with it. But there were different reasons, and I felt at the time it was the right thing to do. But this year was really frustrating, because I was really excited to go to the Italy game. The world works in weird ways sometimes, but for whatever reason that wasn't meant to be. It's nice to get back and hopefully earn my keep again and show that I belong to be here.
Q: Do you feel like you have to earn a spot back as a starter?
Donovan: Yeah. With national teams it's always different. When you're with your club team, every week you have a performance to judge. But when you're with the national team it's a little different because you might not play for three or four months at a time. Things change constantly. So from that aspect it makes it a little easier because you're coming in with a clean slate every time. But that being said, we all watched the last few games, in particular the Italy game [a 1-0 U.S. win in February], and the team played well. And anytime they play well, I've always been of the opinion that you keep a team that plays well. So I've got to find my way back in.
Q: Did you have any communication with Jurgen Klinsmann at all during that stretch [when Donovan wasn't playing for the national team]?
Donovan: We communicated a lot, whether it be via text or phone calls. And then in March or April we met at Home Depot [Center] with Martín [Vásquez, Klinsmann's assistant] and talked a lot about how things had been going. Just keeping me in the loop and letting me know where things stood. It was good to have a chance to sit down and talk, and I could let him know how things were from my end. I think we were I hope both excited for me to get back here.
Q: Coaches are always observing players, but players are observing coaches, too. You've had a chance over the years to observe Klinsmann. What have you learned?
Donovan: We were all there in Germany [at World Cup 2006] and everyone got a little bit swept away by what he did with the German team and how he transformed them. Having played in Germany and knowing the German mentality, [I think] it was pretty remarkable that he was able to accomplish that. There's always been a respect from the outside for those things, but it's different when you get with a coach on a day-to-day basis and you can really see how they make those things happen. He didn't just show up during the World Cup and all of the sudden magic was happening on the field. There's a lot of work that goes into it, and I'm just now starting to understand and appreciate all that.
Q: How do you come back to find the hunger or whatever was motivating you in South Africa [at World Cup 2010]?
Donovan: It's not easy. I think all players reach a point in their career where it's natural to lose some of that hunger, that desire, to sort of break out or be a star. My mindset now is I want to be successful, and I realize now that as I'm getting older I'm not going to be the guy who's scoring goals every game or making a great impact all the time. I'm going to do it as much as I can in that way. But if I can be a part of the team and help lead it to successful times, then that's what I want to do.
I know at some point, and I had a small brush with this with Bob [Bradley] last time at the Gold Cup, at some point the time will come when I'm not a first-choice player. And the challenge then will be how do I still make a positive impact? I want to be a positive influence. I want to be someone who they want to call in and want here consistently, regardless of my role.
Q: Was there burnout from playing so many games with this group? You've been with this group since you were 18. Was it natural for that to happen?
Donovan: I think it's probably part of any job, but it's magnified in athletics. The reality is that people don't really care about that part of it. They show up and they want to see you play and perform. That's a part that's always a challenge for athletes: trying to keep the passion alive while knowing it's still your job. There's no question that at some point, probably sooner rather than later, I'll be pretty burned out. And when that time comes, then I'll take a step back and take a look at it and see if I want to keep going.
Q: How have you changed in these last two years?
Donovan: There's been some transformation in the way the sport is for me now. In 2010 I was so eager to show myself that I could still do it. 2006 was so disappointing. There was that sort of passion and hunger. Candidly, the last few years -- last year included, even though we won the championship [in L.A.] -- there's more of a reality that I'm not going to be able to do this forever. I'm not going to want to do this forever. I know that I have many better things and greater things to do in my life still.
There's a natural point where it's not as fun anymore, not as enjoyable, and you still try to find ways to keep it enjoyable. I used to think maybe if I'm still fit I can play a long time. I think from a mental standpoint now I'm realizing if I'm not enjoying it I'm not going to play. I still enjoy it to a large extent, but I've always promised myself that if that ever goes away I'm not going to play just to play.
Q: You've consciously chosen to reduce your profile in the media a bit, not doing many one-on-ones. Why?
Donovan: Yeah. I'm to the point where this might sound crazy, but I like [being a sports celebrity] for the kids, but I don't really enjoy this aspect of it. I know it's a byproduct of it. I know a lot of people want to be famous and be a celebrity, and that was sort of an undesired consequence of everything that went on in 2010. I'm not complaining. But at my core I'm a pretty simple kid from a small town, and I've been doing this a long time. So I'm actually excited for the day when I can kind of step away from it and really just be a normal person again.
Q: You had a chance to write your autobiography and decided against it. What went into that call?
Donovan: I'm trying to do a lot less. Less is more for me. I don't want my name out there all the time. I want a much lower profile and a much easier lifestyle. I've turned down a lot of marketing opportunities and things like that. It's not of interest to me as much.
Q: Do you still want to be the guy who stayed here to build the game in the U.S. after you retire?
Donovan: That's to be determined, I guess, depending on how I feel. But I'm excited to pass the torch, for lack of a better phrase. I think sports are becoming more and more of a young man's game, anyway. The hunger to succeed is really important, and that's what a lot of young athletes have. It gets harder as you get older, because if you've sort of established yourself, you're not going to be as hungry as a kid who's 18 trying to break in. So it's different in that way.
Everybody talks about who's better, Clint [Dempsey] or Landon, all this bulls---. And I want Clint to do well. I want Clint to succeed. I'm happier probably than anybody when he's succeeding. It's good for our team. It's good for our sport. It's great for Clint. Clint's a little bit different of an animal. He still has that crazy hunger to succeed, more so than most. That's great. That's a beautiful thing. The more players we have like that, the better it's going to be.
Q: What are the goals that you still have for club and country?
Donovan: From a career standpoint, ideally, I'd like to play a couple more years and hopefully get to the World Cup, assuming I'm still enjoying it and passionate about it, and then sort of reevaluate from there and see where I want to go. That would be a perfect world as we're sitting here right now. That could change. Then from the club side about the same: Play the next couple years, this year and next year, with L.A., and then just reevaluate and see what I want to do.
Post-playing, definitely take some time off initially. If I stay in the soccer world I'd love to coach kids. I'd enjoy that. Perhaps broadcasting would be something I'd like to do. And then outside of soccer there's a lot of things. Serving people. A lot of charitable stuff, helping kids that need it.
Q: Are you at the point where you've kind of done what you wanted to do 10 years ago. Are you at the point where you've ticked the boxes in your plan?
Donovan: In the original plan, yeah. But I try to stay present. So while that's all great, it doesn't mean anything anymore. I'm trying to just be very present and live now. If I want to play another year, then I'll play another year. If I don't want to play another year, then I don't play another year. If I want to play five more years, I'll play five more years. But from when I was a little kid I've done everything I wanted to do.