COLUMBUS, Ohio – Landon Donovan’s Cambodian adventure seems like a lifetime ago in soccer terms, but the self-enforced sabbatical’s effects continue to be far reaching. All the way to Brazil, in fact.
On Tuesday night at Crew Stadium, a somewhat two-faced Donovan, whose right eye was swollen and red from a case of conjunctivitis, added another chapter to his already sterling international legacy, dismissing any lingering notion that this winter’s break wasn’t best for player, club or country.
Starting just his second World Cup qualifier since June 2012, Donovan assisted on Eddie Johnson’s opening goal before adding one of his own to deal Mexico yet another 2-0 Hexagonal defeat and seal the US’ place in Brazil next summer. Just like that, it almost seems like he was never gone, that his international career was never in limbo.
“I firmly believe that life’s happening the way it’s supposed to, and I’m meant to be here right now,” a pensive Donovan told reporters after the American’s fourth straight dos a cero victory against Mexico in Columbus. “I’m glad that I could be a part of this.”
When you talk to Donovan these days, he seems unburdened and unpressured, comfortable with his place in the American soccer landscape and this team while exuding a humble appreciation for the kind of opportunity that seemed completely out of reach as recently as a few months ago.
And although there’s always the chance he could lose his grip on a national team place at any given time – through injury or a dip in form – the US’ 50-50 man seems perfectly content to let fate run its course.
His teammates know what fate has delivered. To a man, they’re thrilled to have another game changer, another leader, another brother back in the fold.
They’ll tell you they never doubted whether Donovan would be back nor whether he’d make a difference when that day eventually came. Those sentiments were proven right when the 31-year-old led the US to a Gold Cup title this summer then set about making an impact with Brazil in sight.
“We said that when he was in Cambodia hiking or wherever the hell he was,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “He’s a guy that when he’s on the field put fear in the opponent. We’ve got some guys up front, and you can’t double down on Deuce and you can’t mark him out of the game when you have worry about Landon. … He’s one of these guys who gives you a seven or eight out of 10 every game.”
Against Mexico, a seven or eight is probably on the low side, but Donovan brushed off all attempts to elicit any bravado during the postgame mixed zone.
As he has for the past three months, dating back to the start of the Gold Cup, he was much more concerned about what the win and qualification for Brazil meant for his younger, less-accomplished teammates and the program as a whole.
Donovan’s been there, done that. And now he’s doing it again for good measure.
“He’s smart. He understands the moment,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “What he did was big. Not only with his experience and scoring the goal, but it was also that he understood in certain moments to chase back and help defend and do all that work that is necessary on the international level if you want to succeed.”
Of course, success in Brazil doesn’t rest on Donovan’s shoulders, but as Michael Bradley said before the Costa Rica loss, the US’ best player of all time is certainly key to knockout-stage glory.
For his part, Donovan says this is the best he’s ever played. The game has slowed down. He feels energized. He’s back to being comfortable in his own skin.
And, as he repeated over and over during the Gold Cup, playing soccer is enjoyable again. Every moment is there to be savored, and there should be plenty more for Donovan and his teammates to soak in during the coming months.
“These games are fun to be a part of,” he said. “There is no guarantee that you ever get this again. I hope everyone appreciates it and enjoys it.”