Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — For Landon Donovan, it’s very simple. When he enjoys himself, he plays better.
Clearly, Donovan is enjoying himself these days.
Donovan’s return to the U.S. Men’s National Team continued to prove successful on Tuesday night in a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica at Rentschler Field. The veteran midfielder erased a pedestrian first half in the Gold Cup group stage finale with a much-improved and more aggressive closing 45 minutes, and he was responsible for providing the brilliant inch-perfect through ball to Brek Shea for the game-winner in the 81st minute.
The 31-year-old’s performance may not have been his most dominant or even worthy of the Man of the Match honors, but his influential showing in the match was another positive step for Donovan as he tries to convince U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that he belongs with the A team.
“The reality for me now is every game is an audition,” said Donovan, who now has 53 goals and 52 assists in a U.S. jersey. “I don’t want to get too high with good performances and too low with bad ones. I want to be consistent, I want to be someone that can be relied upon and when my number is called I want to be ready.
“I’m taking it that way, I really am. I’m happy to be a part of this and I want to keep it going.”
Donovan may have been quiet against Costa Rica’s compact defense in the first half, but his wealth of experience in tough games once again showed as he was involved in the match’s decisive play, just as he has been on a multitude of other occasions in his U.S. career.
In fact, Klinsmann made it seem as if he was impressed with the LA Galaxy attacker’s complete performance on Tuesday. Klinsmann praised Donovan’s ability to to lead lesser-experienced players like Alejandro Bedoya and Chris Wondolowski, and communicate with other seasoned veterans like Herculez Gomez.
Hearing Klinsmann express how much he valued Donovan’s contributions and intangibles sounded as though the head coach was talking about his team’s captain, not a player still needing to prove himself after a well-documented, self-imposed sabbatical.
“Landon with his experience is so valuable for us,” said Klinsmann. “He can guide the front line, first with Wondo up front then with Herc coming in. He was always communicating then with Alejandro and Jose (Torres) on both flanks and the ball he plays into Brek is just a perfect ball.
“His leadership in that moment is very, very important to the team and he understands that moment. He’s a player that also understands the importance of certain games. … Things that we ask Landon to do, he did that.”
The main highlight from Donovan’s game was his eye-opening, highlight-reel quality assist nine minutes before the final whistle. As the Americans tried to break out on a counter attack following a dangerous Costa Rica corner kick that nearly resulted in a goal, Joe Corona hit a through ball to Donovan on the right flank that Donovan then proceeded to one-time perfectly into the path of a wide open Shea.
The play was a thing of beauty and an example of just how dynamic and dangerous Donovan can still be.
“It just sums up his tournament so far,” said Shea, whose goal was his first on the international level. “He’s scoring, he’s getting assists, he’s playing well. I couldn’t ask for a better ball, so it’s great.”
It’s great for U.S. fans who want Donovan back in the fold with the A team. It’s great for a U.S. squad that could still use another attacking weapon or two. It’s great for Klinsmann’s philosophy of extreme competition within the side.
It’s also great for Donovan, who has rediscovered his enjoyment with soccer and what it means to represent the United States.
“It’s fun to be a part of something like this, a group like this,” said Donovan. “Particularly this group because there’s a lot of young kids who haven’t been here before, there’s a lot of us who are coming back into the team after being out a while and there’s just a really good camaraderie.
“It’s not guys that are entitled to be here, not used to being here, so for me as an older player, it’s been really enjoyable and I want to make it last as long as possible.”