CHICAGO — Burned out and exhausted from more than a decade as the standard bearer for U.S. soccer, Landon Donovan needed a break.
Last winter, soccer was the last concern for the Americans’ career scoring leader. He spent time with family and friends, trying to make up for all the holidays and get-togethers he missed over the years. He traveled to far-flung places and reveled in his respite from the harsh glare of the spotlight.
Somewhere along the way, he rediscovered his love for the game he had been so desperate to escape.
The rejuvenated Donovan is a big reason the Americans are in Sunday’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final against Panama at Soldier Fiedl. He has five goals in five games, tied for the tournament high, and seven assists.
“I’ve enjoyed myself tremendously,” Donovan said Saturday. “I’ve enjoyed helping with the younger guys. I’ve enjoyed being a part of a team that really doesn’t have ego, that’s really excited about this opportunity.”
Donovan wasn’t enjoying much after helping the Los Angeles Galaxy win its second consecutive Major League Soccer title Dec. 1.
He was saddled with the title of “best player the U.S. has ever produced” after scoring twice at the 2002 World Cup, helping fuel the Americans’ stunning run to the quarterfinals.
Though the entire U.S. team was dismal at the 2006 World Cup, Donovan took much of the criticism. In 2010, his spectacular goal against Algeria in stoppage time lifted the U.S. into the knockout round, but he heard more grumbling when the U.S. lost to Ghana.
Frustration also mounted in his MLS career. Donovan helped the Galaxy win the MLS Cup in 2005, but his success was overshadowed by the arrival of David Beckham in 2007.
By the time the Galaxy hoisted the trophy at the end of last season, Donovan was mentally and physically drained, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to keep playing.
While the Galaxy told Donovan to take the time he needed, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t quite so understanding. He left Donovan off the roster for a series of World Cup qualifiers, saying Donovan needed to work his way back onto the team. When he thought Donovan was ready to play, Klinsmann said he expected Donovan to be even better than he was before his sabbatical.
“Because of what he achieved in the past, his benchmark is higher than a lot of the other guys,” Klinsmann said. “We had honest conversations about it, and I said, ‘I want the best Landon ever. I’m not happy with anything less.’ And he took that challenge.”
Donovan’s leadership will take on vital importance Sunday because Klinsmann is suspended for the game after his tirade over officiating during the semifinals.
While Klinsmann hasn’t indicated who will be on his roster for the next round of World Cup qualifiers, which begin Sept. 6 in Costa Rica, it’s hard to see him bypassing Donovan again.
“We are happy with how things are going — and I’m not saying that because he’s sitting next to me right now,” Klinsmann said. “Landon is realistic that CONCACAF is not the World Cup. We know that. But he’s very good challenging on all levels, and this is, for us, very, very good.”