U.S. all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan is preparing to take part in his fourth FIFA World Cup. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
CARSON, Calif. – No one has a feel for the U.S. national team’s January camp like Landon Donovan, who has participated in a decade’s worth.
And none of the players currently preparing for Saturday’s friendly vs. South Korea understands soccer’s biggest stage like the program’s all-time leading goal scorer, who has played nearly five times as many World Cup minutes as the other 21 campers combined.
On Thursday at StubHub Center, Donovan met the media and offered his perspective on preparing for a fourth World Cup and his role with the team as his 32nd birthday approaches.
“I’ve learned a lot from all the World Cups,” Donovan said. “There’s always an excitement at this part of the year leading to our season. There’s always guys fighting for spots, which is good. I guess as far as preparation, you want to be peaking at the right time.”
Peaking in June is the goal only once every four years. The World Cup might disrupt a player’s long-term rhythm. U.S. midfielder Benny Feilhaber, the second-most experienced World Cup player here in Southern California (165 minutes), admitted that, “It’s hard to plan for.” Staying fit is in your control. Staying healthy may not be. Good club form is critical, but can be more difficult to maintain with the World Cup lingering in the back of your mind.
“It’s hard to control. It’s really tough. The only things you can control is to be in peak physical condition,” Feilhaber said.
According to Donovan, the ongoing camp “is good for everybody, to get a sense of what the expectations are and what Jurgen [Klinsmann] and the coaching staff want. But the reality is we’re going to get judged and picked based on how we do Saturday, potentially how we do in March and how we do with our teams during the season.”
It is impossible to imagine Donovan failing to make the grade. There were questions about his national team future a year ago as he embarked on a brief sabbatical. But concerns about his mental and emotional fatigue seemed to vanish when he returned to the U.S. fold for last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Donovan was the runaway Golden Ball winner, and the Americans coasted to the title with a 6-0-0 record. He then started three of the final four World Cup qualifiers and scored in the September triumph over Mexico.
Interestingly, however, his comments on Thursday reflected some of what he said in mid-2012, when he first revealed his malaise. Back then, he talked about “pass[ing] the torch” and his hope that he could “just be a player that can be depended upon and that can help in other ways, in smart ways, in leadership ways, whether you’re on or off the field.”
Twenty months later, the context is far different. But some of the sentiment was similar. Where there once was fatigue, now there is a focus on a much bigger picture and the part he might play in the sport's long-term growth.
“The good thing about playing in so many positions and situations and having the experiences that I’ve had is that I can help in a lot of different ways,” he said Thursday. “The goal is to make the team. I’m not in a place in my life now where I need to have this crazy burning desire to start and score and do everything. I want the team to do well, and I want the team to succeed and I want to be a part of it, of course. We all have ego, we all get enjoyment out of doing those things. But I want to help this team do well, and I want to help U.S. soccer make another big step.”
His flexibility and experience will help. Unlike 2010, when his role as a flank player expected to engineer the counterattack was pretty well defined, Donovan could play in several different spots on a team that’s still tinkering. Klinsmann often starts matches in a 4-2-3-1, but the formation is more of a guideline than a rigid tactical game plan. Players shift and move. They approach a given position with different strengths and tendencies, which can alter the way the team attacks.
Sometimes a second forward is added. That then impacts the shape of the midfield. The likes of Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Aron Johannsson, Eddie Johnson and others can play in multiple spots, further increasing the number of potential permutations.
For Donovan, it brings back memories of the run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002. DaMarcus Beasley and Steve Cherundolo are the only other men from that team that remain in the U.S. pool.
“Every coach is different,” Donovan said. “In 2002, we played multiple formations. I remember playing in at least four different positions over the five games. Other guys did the same. So it depends on the coach and how comfortable you are with that group.
“I remember in that tournament, Bruce [Arena] maybe for the Mexico game [in the round-of-16], we played in a 3-5-2, which we hadn’t done, hadn’t really worked on," he said. "Each coach is different. I think Jurgen has made it pretty clear how he wants to play and guys need to sort of fit into those roles. But we’re also very able to adapt, capable of adapting, and we have enough guys with enough experience now where that can be seamless.”