When Landon Donovan, statistically the best American football player ever, decided to return to the game after a much-discussed four-month hiatus, he explained his reasoning to Charles Boehm of MLSsoccer.com:
I wanted to get the enjoyment back. And I watched our first game against Chicago, the Galaxy game at home and really had that itch again to play, and I knew that I was ready.
This week was pretty difficult, watching the US in those games when you want to be a part of it.
Donovan wanted back into Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the U.S. men's national team and was eagerly welcomed back into the fold.
He was not immediately inserted into the first-choice XI despite the fact that he still possesses magic in his legs and is the most gifted man ever to represent the United States on a football pitch. The semblance of a meritocracy must be maintained to sustain the team's morale.
Instead, he was offered the opportunity to be the focal point of the B-team, which would compete at the relatively peripheral Gold Cup.
Evidently, Donovan still wants "to be a part of" the intoxicating atmosphere that is produced when America's potent patriotism is mingled with the prominent stage of international football.
If he has had any misgivings about returning from his self-enforced absence from the game or any minute waned in his competitive spirit, he has been incredibly productive while hiding it.
Throughout the Gold Cup, he has been at the crux of the Americans' entire attacking machine. Few teams that have had the displeasure of facing the Yanks have a chance of appearing in the World Cup next year, but great teams are often felled by lesser opposition.
The U.S. has rarely come close to losing a match during its present run; in fact, it has outscored its opponents by a collective score of 16-3.
Donovan's creative ability from both a central attacking midfield position (where he has mainly been deployed during the Gold Cup) and on the wings has allowed him to maneuver freely and completely integrate himself into almost every one of the U.S.'s attacks.
All three of his assists against El Salvador were crosses, and two did not occur immediately after a set piece. No other person in a red and white shirt is capable of whipping the ball into the box with Donovan's precision, and that talent was directly responsible for more than half of the Americans' goal tally.
Such unique ability allows Klinsmann to use Donovan in several situations that allow for substantial tactical complexity.
El Salvador could simply not figure out how to stop the Americans from breaching its defense with intricate, perfectly timed corner routines. Often, Donovan was not the man by the corner flag putting the initial ball into play; rather, other players would cleverly funnel him the ball, enabling the best player on the team time and space to pick the perfect pass.
Or, he would simply be used as a dummy—a tactic that can be as effective in its deception as Donovan is with his unmatched talent.
But the ball tends to be sucked toward his feet when the U.S. has the opportunity to break quickly. When decisions need to be made rapidly and astutely, the most talented passer and dribbler on the team must be in control and Donovan certainly is during these flustering situations.
His perfectly weighted curled through-ball against Costa Rica was certainly beyond the skill of almost every other player on the pitch. When put through on El Salvador's goal with a couple defenders rapidly making up ground, Donovan coolly rounded the goalkeeper and slotted the ball into an empty goal.
After witnessing that most joyous of sights for a footballer—the ball splashing against the net in goal—Donovan simply dropped to his knees and spread his arms while raising his head to the pouring heavens.
As he blissfully allowed himself to absorb the rain and the adulation of the American fans in Baltimore, it was eminently clear that Donovan is truly part of the national team once again.
He should stay until he can no longer play. The U.S. men's national team needs its greatest player as much he needs it.