Soccer: Donovan challenged after taking time off

By LOS ANGELES TIMES  • 
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Gregory Bull | Associated Press
Landon Donovan, right, scored twice in the United States’ 6-0 win over Guatemala last week. The Americans opened Gold Cup play last night against Belize.

If Landon Donovan had it to do over again, he would.

He would give up his place on the U.S. national soccer team 18 months before what would be his fourth World Cup. He would surrender the captain’s armband and part of his $2.4 million salary with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

And those are just some of the things Donovan lost when, exhausted by a dozen years of nonstop competition, he walked away from soccer for three months last winter.

Donovan took his first step on the road toward regaining his spot on the World Cup team when the U.S. played Guatemala on Friday in a tuneup for this week’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Donovan scored twice in the 6-0 win, his 50th and 51st international goals. The Americans opened the Gold Cup last night in Portland, Ore., against what should be an overmatched Belize.

Donovan will be watched closely, U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said last week.

“There’s a lot at stake,” Klinsmann said. “He had his break. He had his reasons for it. And we are thrilled to have him back.

“But now it’s all about your performance. The players know this is an opportunity for every one of them to make a strong case toward Brazil 2014.”

Donovan would seem to have little left to prove. The national team’s all-time leader in goals and assists, he is arguably the best player in U.S. history. In most other team sports, a player of his stature wouldn’t have to win back his uniform.

Donovan said he has accepted the challenge. “This team always moves forward. And if you’re not on the train, you’ve got to find a way to get back on,” he said. “That’s what I’m hoping to do.”& amp; amp; amp; amp; amp; lt; /p>

At 31, Donovan might be a step or two slower than in his prime. And as Klinsmann has repeatedly pointed out, he needed time to find his game after returning to the Galaxy and Major League Soccer in late March.

What might have most hurt his standing with the coaching staff, though, was the fact he walked away from the national team just as it was preparing for the final round of World Cup qualifying. But Donovan said that although he and Klinsmann appear to share little more than a frosty detente, their relationship is actually quite good.

“A lot of times people have relationships where on the surface everyone thinks everything is great but you don’t say what you mean and what you feel,” Donovan said. “And him and I have been honest since day one.”

DaMarcus Beasley, a teammate of Donovan’s since 1999, when both played for the U.S. under-17 team, said players accepted Donovan’s decision to get away.

“I understood exactly why he did it,” said Beasley, whom Klinsmann chose to captain the Gold Cup team. “You know he’s had a lot of weight on his shoulders the last six, seven years. Being the face of MLS, being the face of U.S. Soccer — he needed to take a little break.

“The guys that understood where he was coming from gave him the opportunity to do that, to sort out what he wanted to do. Whether that was keep playing, whether that was stop playing. But at the same time I’m glad he’s back. It’s good to see his face in camp again.”

Whether he’ll be invited back ahead of the fall round of World Cup qualifiers will depend on Donovan, Klinsmann said.

“If you want to play for the national team, you’ve got to be in full swing. Because we can’t afford to have players not coming off a game rhythm,” he said. “It’s down to Landon now to pick up the pace here. So we’ll get a lot of answers over the next couple of weeks from a lot of players."

For sure, though, Klinsmann liked what he saw from Donovan and his teammates in the friendly against Guatemala.

“We’re happy that Landon picked up his rhythm and is part of the group again,” Klinsmann said. “ Goals certainly help. For any offensive player, that’s the best recipe.”

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