CHICAGO — Burned out and exhausted from more than a decade as the standard bearer for U.S. soccer, Landon Donovan needed a break.
For four months last winter, soccer was the last concern for the Americans' career scoring leader. He spent time with family and friends, making up for all those holidays and get-togethers he missed over the years. He traveled to far-flung places, reveling in his respite from the harsh glare of the spotlight.
And somewhere along the way, he rediscovered his love for the game he'd been so desperate to escape.
The rejuvenated Donovan is a big reason the Americans are in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final Sunday, where they'll face Panama. He has five goals in five games, tied for a tournament high, and seven assists. Those 12 goals are one more than Panama's entire team has scored; the Americans lead the tournament with a total of 19 goals.
"I've enjoyed myself tremendously," Donovan said Saturday. "I've enjoyed helping with the younger guys. I've enjoyed being a part of team that really doesn't have ego, that's really excited about this opportunity. It's been really fun to be a part of, and I've enjoyed it a lot."
Donovan wasn't enjoying much after helping the Los Angeles Galaxy win their second straight MLS title on Dec. 1.
Saddled with the title of "best player the U.S. has ever produced" since he scored twice at the 2002 World Cup, helping fuel the Americans' stunning run to the quarterfinals and earning him best young player of the tournament honors, nothing Donovan did was ever good enough. Though the entire U.S. team was dismal at the 2006 World Cup, he took the brunt of the criticism. He was the hero four years later after his spectacular goal against Algeria in stoppage time lifted the Americans into the knockout round, only to hear more grumbling when the Americans lost to Ghana.
His early failures in Germany only fueled the negativity, and his success with the Galaxy was overshadowed by the arrival of David Beckham.
By the time the Galaxy hoisted the trophy, he was, understandably, drained — mentally and physically, and wasn't sure if he wanted to keep playing. Never mind that he only turned 31 on March 4, and the World Cup was less than two years away.
While the Galaxy told him to take the time he needed, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't quite so understanding. He left Donovan off the roster for a series of World Cup qualifiers, saying Donovan needed to work his way back onto the team. When he finally felt Donovan was ready to play, Klinsmann said he expected Donovan to be even better than the player he'd been before his sabbatical.
"It was his choice to take a little bit of time off. It was his choice to get a little bit of distance," Klinsmann said Saturday. "He knew his way back to this group only goes through hard work. It goes through good performances. It goes through showing on and off the field.
"Because of what he achieved in the past, his benchmark is higher than a lot of the other guys," Klinsmann added. "We had honest conversations about it, and I said, 'I want the best Landon ever, I'm not happy with anything less.' And he took that challenge."
In Donovan's first game back with the Americans after an 11-month absence, he scored twice in an exhibition against Guatemala and became the first U.S. player to crack the 50-goal mark. He's been simply dazzling in the Gold Cup, scoring or having an assist in each of the Americans' games.
But it's not simply the numbers on the stat sheet. He plays with a pace and rhythm few other players can match, and he sees the field as well as any coach. Both when he plays wide and in front of the goal, he requires additional attention from opposing defenses, opening up opportunities for his teammates. He's also gone out of his way to help the many young players, and his veteran leadership will be even more vital Sunday with Klinsmann suspended for the game because of a tirade over officiating during the semifinals.
"It's been great to see him back in the fold and playing the way he's been playing," said captain DaMarcus Beasley, who has known Donovan since they helped the U.S. reach the semifinals of the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship. "Like he's said in different interviews, when he's happy and excited, that's when he plays his best. He's done that throughout this tournament, throughout this month and hopefully he'll do the same through our qualifying — if he gets called up."
While Klinsmann hasn't indicated who will be on his roster for the next round of qualifiers, which begin Sept. 6 in Costa Rica, it's hard to see him bypassing Donovan again. He's done everything the U.S. coach has wanted — and then some.
"We are happy with how things are going — and I'm not saying that because he's sitting next to me right now," Klinsmann said. "... Landon is realistic that CONCACAF is not the World Cup. We know that. But he's very good challenging on all levels and this is, for us, very, very good."