This was supposed to be America's B-Team. Without Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard on the roster, U.S. Soccer's brightest stars and biggest names supposedly weren't around. But thanks to the early exploits of Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski and Stuart Holden, this group is showing the potential to become the feel-good hit of the summer.
As the United States national soccer team prepares for its second match in the CONCACAF Gold Cup group stage Saturday against Cuba, the storylines are as heartwarming as the squad's tournament-opening 6-1 victory over Belize on Tuesday night.
Leading the way is Donovan, the veteran-turned-outsider still finding his way back after a self-imposed exile from soccer.
Then there's Wondolowski, another veteran on the wrong side of 30 who, unlike Donovan, hasn't enjoyed success at the international level—until, perhaps, now.
Finally there's Holden, the one-time rising star now playing the role of comeback kid to endearing perfection.
“I think it’s a very, very good team we've put together here for this Gold Cup and with a tremendous amount of experience and guys that know that this is a huge, huge opportunity,” Klinsmann told MLSSoccer.com's Jonah Freedman before the tournament, disputing the notion that this U.S. squad was a B-team.
Klinsmann added: “It’s also one year away from the World Cup. So it’s about World Cup spots, (and) it’s about proving to everyone we want to be No. 1 in CONCACAF.”
For Donovan, the challenge is clear. A veteran of three World Cups, the 31-year-old has a chance to cap a sterling international career with another Cup appearance next year in Brazil. His spot seemed a foregone conclusion until he ruled himself out of key qualifiers during a self-imposed break from the game early in 2013.
After his return however, Donovan found himself outside Klinsmann's plans. Before the Gold Cup roster was released, Donovan had not earned a call-up since his return. Even so, Donovan told USA Today that the break was necessary.
"If I hadn't taken time, I would have been useless in a professional setting and probably a personal setting," Donovan said. "I needed a break and I don't use the word 'need' all that lightly. I had to listen to myself and do what was best for me."
These days, though, what's best for Donovan is also best for the team. In his first match back, a 6-0 rout of Guatemala in a friendly, Donovan scored twice and set up another with a key pass in the build-up. Against Belize, he scored again and added two assists, raising his U.S. Soccer-best career totals to 52 goals and 51 assists.
“I’m very proud of it (the assist record),” Donovan told USSoccer.com. “If you pass the ball and guys don’t score, you don’t get the assist. I’m very aware that there are two parts to that. I get a lot of enjoyment out of helping guys score and seeing guys be successful and happy.”
One of those guys scoring goals in bunches for the U.S. is Wondolowski, though the scoring glut has been a long time coming. Last season with the San Jose Earthquakes, Wondo scored 27 goals and earned league MVP honors. But until last week, the 30-year-old had never scored at the international level.
That changed with Wondo's second-half goal against Guatemala, a strike that seemed to open the proverbial floodgates. Wondolowski added three more goals—all in the first half—against Belize while displaying excellent movement and finishing skills.
All despite wearing a jersey that had his name misspelled on the back.
“Wondo realizes every minute he’s on the field that he has an opportunity, and he better take it, and he did very well,” Klinsmann told USSoccer.com.
Added Wondolowski: “I’m confident, relaxed and enjoying it. I was pressing a little too much in the beginning and I don’t think I play my best when I’m like that.”
As Donovan fights for a spot at a fourth World Cup and Wondolowski fights for respect at the international level, Holden's story is all about the fight just to return to the field.
Once a rising midfield star—Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl has dubbed Holden, 27, a "skilled two-way midfielder with a V-12 engine"—Holden has fought serious injuries for more than three years. The nightmare began when Holland's Nigel De Jong broke his leg in a friendly in March 2010. A year later, while Holden was playing for Bolton Wanderers, he suffered a knee injury after a tackle by Manchester United's Jonny Evans.
After a long recovery, Holden finally returned to action in January, 22 months after Evans' tackle. Last Friday against Guatemala, he earned his first extended run-out with the national team—and excelled in an inspirational performance.
For the U.S., the combination of Donovan, Wondolowski and Holden added up to an excellent start to the Gold Cup that was equal parts entertainment and inspiration. Never mind the A-team for now. These guys are equally worth getting behind.