Landon Donovan fell to his knees and tilted his head back, rain falling on his face. He screamed in ecstasy having scored in the USA’s quarter-final rout of El Salvador, and the message was clear: here is a man enjoying his football, enjoying his life.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good time playing,” the USA’s iconic creator and soccer pioneer admitted after the final whistle. He scored five goals for the Americans, displaying a constant influence that saw him named the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup’s best player.

Donovan’s journey hasn’t always been so joyful. The pressure has been heavy on the Californian since a young age. He emerged with a resounding bang at the 1999 FIFA U-17 World Cup, where he was voted best player of the tournament. It was a first for an American and he immediately stepped into uncharted territory. There was no blueprint for this in American soccer. He was on his own.  

A move to Germany followed where he spent two seasons unhappily on the bench at Bayer Leverkusen before being sent back home on loan to MLS. It was a false start for the man tipped to be the savior of American soccer, but the pressure on Donovan was still great.

“He’s been the face of US soccer, the face of the LA Galaxy, of MLS, the face of the national team for a long time. He’s been through a lot,” DaMarcus Beasley, USA’s Gold Cup captain and long-time teammate of Donovan, told “For him to be playing the way he is now, that’s bad news for any opponent.”

Vintage Donovan, lengthy sabbatical
It’s good news for the Stars and Stripes, though. Donovan seemed to have a foot in every one of the Americans’ 20 goals at the Gold Cup, their fifth regional crown (his fourth). His creativity and guile on the ball were as good as ever and his work-rate spoke volumes about a player, now 31, who had something to prove.

“To see how he reads the game is just amazing,” added Chris Wondolowski, who linked up with Donovan in the early phases of the tournament, scoring five goals of his own. “His impact on the field is unreal.”

There have been many accolades for Donovan through the years. Seven times he was named top US player; he won five MLS titles after returning from Germany. He’s played in three FIFA World Cups™, with highlights in 2002 when he helped orchestrate the 2-0 win over rivals Mexico, and in South Africa in 2010 with a handful of dominant performances. He’s the top-scorer in the history of the US national team, hitting the net 56 times in 151 caps.

But last winter, it looked like his career was over. It wasn’t injury or lack of form that threatened his progress, but a deeply personal decision to step away from the game. It was called a ‘sabbatical,’ fitting for a player of such high intelligence and obvious sensitivity, and it lasted four months.  He went to Cambodia. He spent time with his family. He read. He found balance, perspective, and his passion returned. He wanted to play football.  

“He needs a little time to recover and figure out what comes next,” national teammate Michael Bradley, a natural stoic, told during Donovan’s time off. “I hope he gets what he needs, but the game never stops and we have to look ahead,” he added, with the lead-pipe reality of a top-tier athlete.

Four months is a long time in football and when Donovan returned, refreshed and ready, to his MLS club Los Angeles Galaxy, the national team had soldiered on without him. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann made it clear that he would have to work his way back, that current form and commitment mattered, not status and past achievements, not a name.

He’s one of the best players to ever pull on an American jersey, and you can see that he’s happy and enjoying his game.

DaMarcus Beasley on Landon Donovan

The American national team, a team so long defined and influenced by Donovan’s presence and play-making, had moved on. “We miss Landon, and the things he does on the field,” striker Jozy Altidore said. “But we have to pick up the slack and make up the difference.”

Return from the wilderness
After a slow start to the final qualifying round for Brazil 2014, USA did just that. Klinsmann’s enthusiasm and tactics took root. The Americans, bolstered by new faces and old spirit, surged up to first-place, where they now sit with four games to go in September.

Donovan, to his credit, was ready to work. He expected no favours and when Klinsmann finally tapped him for the 2013 Gold Cup, there was no hesitation. There might have been, as the tournament falls at a busy time and very few top stars were called in by any of the competing nations. But his play led the way to the final, a 1-0 win over Panama on Sunday in Chicago, and was nothing short of inspired.

His set-pieces were devastating, and his movement between the midfield and forward line was as supple and visionary as ever. Most of all, his enthusiasm and spirit, his passion for the game and for the US colours, were there for all to see.

“It’s been tremendous,” said Donovan, humbly, about his Gold Cup return, still unsure of what the future holds, whether Klinsmann will bring him back into the fold for qualifying and for another, and likely last, FIFA World Cup next year in Brazil. “I’ve enjoyed being part of a team that doesn’t have any ego.”

The final word went to Beasley, Gold Cup captain and teammate all the way back to the U-17 finals of 1999. “He’s one of the best players to ever pull on an American jersey, and you can see that he’s happy and enjoying his game,” he said, a smile in his voice, a clear affection for an old friend. “When he’s having a good time out there, you can’t touch him. You can’t even come close.”