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Donovan form is well-timed for USA

FOX Soccer Daily: Preview of Costa Rica vs. United States.
FOX Soccer Daily: Preview of Costa Rica vs. United States.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.




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Rising from his chair, Landon Donovan reveals his age. “Thanks for coming down, guys,” he says to the 20 or so reporters that have just asked him all manner of questions. “Times have changed. It used to be three of you here.”

Donovan is 31 now and he has been here before and done it time and again. He’s been down to Central America’s cauldrons, had things thrown at him. He knows the deal.

Leaning heavily on a round table with both elbows, Donovan recites all the things he’s been hit with from the abidingly hostile crowds here in Costa Rica during World Cup qualifiers dating back to 2001, which he’ll face again on Friday. “I’m not quite sure what they were but I have a pretty good idea,” he says. “Certainly alcohol… certainly bodily fluids… coins… batteries… sunglasses.”

“I’m sure it’ll still be going on Friday night.”

The added value of having a player like Donovan back in the squad after almost a year away from the USA’s A-team -- during which he battled motivational issues, took a sabbatical and then slowly fought his way back -- is a knowhow and knowingness that matches his obvious playing skill and savvy.

“It doesn’t matter at all to me,” he says of the caustic surroundings. “I’ve been through this enough times where these things happen every time. This is standard procedure for some of these teams in these games.”

But then, Donovan says, the team has enough players now who are accustomed to these environments, which conspires, alongside an unprecedented wealth of talent, to make this the deepest US team he has known in more than a dozen years of service. “Unquestionably,” he says. “When you see a bunch of guys that don’t get called in that absolutely deserve to be here too, it tells you that the team is very deep.”


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“It’s not a fluke that our team has won 12 games in a row,” says Donovan of the team’s longest-ever streak, which is just three shy of Spain’s world record. “You could say a few games along the way maybe we didn’t deserve the win here or there but to win 12 in a row is impressive.”

Donovan, for his part, is calling to mind the Landon of yore, when he merrily cut up defenses and raced to the US men's national team’s all-time leading scoring record by age 25. “If I had to evaluate, I’d say this is the best I’ve ever played,” he says. “The energy I had when I was 20 is pretty close to being matched now but I have the experience of all the years. Everything has really slowed down for me now. I see everything very clearly on the field, everything sort of makes sense. Not every play is perfect but I feel like every time I get the ball I have a real chance to impact the game. It’s a great feeling.”

There is plenty of empirical evidence and data to back that up. When Donovan led the American B-team to the 2013 Gold Cup, the performance that brought him back to the first team, he recorded five goals and seven assists in just six games.

But Donovan no longer aches to be quite so foundational in the construct of a team that developed without him and now counts Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore as its chief pillars. “I want to really help,” he says. “And that doesn’t have to mean on the field, but I want to contribute. And I want to help the team get to where it wants to go. You want to help all the young guys.”


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Others don’t see it that way. “If we want to play more than three games at the World Cup” – which is to say: make it out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds – "we need Landon,” says Bradley.

“We are very, very pleased now with the process he went through in the last year,” head coach Jurgen Klinsmann says of Donovan. “It’s wonderful to see. We didn’t know what direction he would go in a year ago. It’s very important [to have him back.] His experience and his game is at a very high level. When he’s fit, when he’s fresh, when he’s inspired and looks at things very positively, he gives you another card to play, which for us is great.”

Donovan’s return to form and fold is well timed. The Americans have not won here in Costa Rica before. And in eight qualifiers, they’ve taken just a single point. But as Donovan said, there’s change afoot. “I think there’s a sense – one, because of where we are in the standings [first place]; and two, because of the form we’ve been in -- that’s not cocky but very confident that we’re going to do well and that it’s going to look different than any qualifier has looked here for the US,” he says.

After all, the Americans don’t have to appear at daunting and decrepit Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, with its stands just a few yards from the field, but will play in the new National Stadium instead, where a track separates fans from field. “I think we like our chances playing on grass instead of turf in a stadium that’s relatively safe versus one that feels relatively unsafe,” Donovan says.

Yes, much has changed. But not Landon Donovan’s worth to the USA.

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