Landon Donovan came off the bench for the USA against Mexico, something that has been a rarity during his decorated international career. (Rock Scuteri/AP)
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Landon Donovan might want to consider sticking around long enough to get another crack at Mexico. Wednesday's friendly here at the University of Phoenix Stadium was far from a fitting finale for a player who's had so many memorable moments -- and six goals, including his first international tally -- against El Tri.
Donovan, 32, has hinted that his international career soon may come to a close, and he told reporters this week that, "For many of us, it could be the last time we play Mexico." It likely would be for Donovan if he retires from the national team soon after this summer's World Cup. The arch rivals probably won't play against this year and may not meet again until the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Wednesday's 2-2 draw didn't feel like a typical friendly. In addition to the history between the sides and a crowd exceeding 59,000, the upcoming World Cup raised the stakes for many American players. There are roster spots to secure and starting roles to claim. While Donovan is a sure bet to participate in his fourth World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann consistently has refused to reward the program's all-time leading scorer for past success.
This week, the prospect of Donovan starting alongside Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley for the first team in two years was a popular topic of conversation. It seemed a given. But when the match kicked off Wednesday, Donovan was on the bench. It was the just the 15th time in 156 career international appearances that he didn't start.
"There was a simple decision based on the way he was the last couple of days," Klinsmann explained following the game. "He told me also [Wednesday] morning that he had some issues with his left knee. He didn't train well. He had no tempo in his training sessions. He had no higher pace, higher rhythm. He didn’t take people on. So I sat him down [Wednesday] morning ... and [told him] based what I saw the last three days, I can’t leave [Chris Wondolowski] out because Wondo deserves [to start] after two goals against South Korea [in January]. He's working so hard, that guy."
Klinsmann said Donovan "understood it" and was ready to come on as a reserve. He did so in the 59th minute, replacing Graham Zusi in right midfield. The U.S. dominated the first half without Donovan, taking a 2-0 lead on goals by Bradley and Wondolowski. Mexico turned the tables after intermission and scored before and after Donovan entered the game. But he had a negligible impact.
"I was dealing with some tendinitis this week so we made the decision to take it easy," Donovan said. "I felt good in the game. It’s a midweek friendly game and you want to be cautious, do the smart thing."
He's now played twice for the U.S. in 2014 and appeared in four official matches for the L.A. Galaxy.
Klinsmann lauded Donovan's attitude and said he was "very professional" when informed of the demotion.
"I think it's just important that you explain things and how you see things and also let the player talk, which he does, and listen to him. At the end of the day, he knows that I'm making the decisions and I make the decision based on what I'm telling him," Klinsmann said. "It's all good. He took it very positive and said, 'I'm ready to come off the bench.'"
It's not impossible to imagine Donovan doing so in Brazil. Klinsmann may choose not to subject him to three grueling, 90-minute matches in 11 days. There's increased competition for playing time and the manager continues to test different tactics as the tournament approaches. It's easy to see, for example, Fabian Johnson and Zusi on the flanks and Dempsey supporting Altidore up top, with Donovan providing a welcome second-half spark. If Klinsmann has demonstrated anything during his tenure, it's that nothing should be taken for granted.
Donovan is at peace with that. Asked to define his role, he said, "It's whatever the team needs."
The Americans' World Cup prospects obviously improve with Donovan at full throttle. On Wednesday, Klinsmann reminded everyone that Donovan will have to be in order to play a key, full-time role.