FOX Soccer Exclusive
Donovan's future will take shape soon
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Certain characteristics emerge when Landon Donovan finds his rhythm and poses unrelenting danger to defenses.
He adopts a determined, furtive gait as he prowls around the field. He explodes into the right areas at the right times when an inviting opportunity arises. He punishes mistakes with precision and ruthlessness. He even takes a moment to crouch down before he prepares to dispatch yet another penalty kick past another frustrated goal keeper.
Each of those indicators – especially the latter habit in the wake of some unexpected struggles from spot – assumed new meaning this season. Donovan's decision to step away from the game temporarily over the winter incited furious debate about his future and placed his every movement under a harsh spotlight upon his return to the Los Angeles Galaxy in March.
Every match and every moment now offers an opportunity to interpret where Donovan stands in comparison to his best displays. He does not need to hit peak form to influence matches in Major League Soccer given his ample talent, but he faces stricter criteria with the 2014 World Cup less than a year away.
Donovan politely declined a query about his spot on the 35-man CONCACAF Gold Cup preliminary roster and any recent discussions with Jurgen Klinsmann about a return to the international scene, but he did address where he believes he fits on his usual spectrum at the moment.
“I feel like I'm back,” Donovan said after a Galaxy training session one day before the 5-0 defeat at New England. “I feel like – in moments – I'm definitely at my best. Last week (against Seattle), even though I didn't contribute on the scoresheet, it was my best and most complete game. I feel like I'm back.”
The exact nature of that return probably falls a bit short of Donovan's lofty standards, though. His current haul of three goals and three assists represents a decent return from 10 games, but it also obscures the fitful process experienced after he returned to the Galaxy and worked his way back toward form and match fitness.
It took the 31-year-old a bit of time to adjust after linking up with his teammates in the early stages of the MLS season. He did not proceed through the usual preseason rigors or reap the sometimes scant benefits of toiling through friendlies to sharpen his skills after his layoff.
Most of the progress occurred on the training field and in first-team matches. Some displays supplied the usual high points without mustering the constant menace usually presented. Other performances yielded the sort of neat combination play and swashbuckling movement typical of a player capable of dominating at the domestic level and supplementing the options available to Klinsmann on the international stage.
Each of those appearances, however, provided Donovan with the chance to inch toward the sharpness he requires to create havoc in MLS and state his credentials for a United States recall.
“It's there now,” Donovan said. “The Vancouver game was poor. The Philly game was pretty good, for the most part. Actually, I felt pretty good in the New York game, I just wasn't very effective. And the Seattle game, I felt great. It's there now. The confidence is there. The comfort is there. I'm ready to break out.”
Donovan buttressed those claims with a sumptuous half-volley in the 3-1 defeat at Real Salt Lake on Saturday. His next step likely involves conjuring that sort of magic on a regular basis to mandate his return to the international setup. He remains capable of contributing significantly at that level, particularly for a squad that needs more depth in the wide areas. His probable inclusion on the Gold Cup roster offers him a route back into Klinsmann's good graces, one that he will likely take in order to press his claims and reinforce the notion that he can still make an impact for his country.
"I've seen him kind of catching up. I've seen him getting a rhythm, getting more games in,'' Klinsmann said in a conference last month. “We’re all excited that he has decided to continue to play. That was the first major answer that we needed to get, and now he’s just working himself back into shape and back into a playing rhythm.
“He will get sharper and more confident with every game he’s going to play now. So we’ll watch that, we’ll monitor that and we’ll decide then when to bring him back into our picture."
The next few months will reveal whether Donovan can present the anticipated threat to Graham Zusi's increasingly permanent place on the right side of the United States midfield or whether his career might continue along another path. Donovan's contract expires at the end of the season and his situation grants him the opening to mold his future – for club, for country and for life – as he sees fit.
In lieu of fixed answers to those impending dilemmas, Donovan leaves the expectant public grasping for signs about what the next year may hold for him. He provides them in his own way when he steps on the field. And the increasing prevalence of those familiar markers suggests he still boasts the ability to mandate a prominent place in the discussion as the MLS campaign continues and the World Cup draws closer.
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