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On American Soccer: Donovan comes full circle

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Landon Donovan: 'This is my last chance of making a World Cup'
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Landon Donovan: 'This is my last chance of making a World Cup'

Landon Donovan made history last weekend, and did so in a way that made it look just so easy. His 135th career MLS goal tied Jeff Cunningham’s league career record, setting Donovan up for the inevitable breaking of a mark that seemed destined to be his from the moment he first set foot in the league.

For all that record means, the form he finds himself in heading into the upcoming World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. national team is just as significant. He professes to be playing the best soccer of his life, and when the USA faces Jamaica and Panama, Donovan will once again be wearing the familiar role of team leader in a squad missing the likes of Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey.

Donovan being a leading force on the team is nothing new and is hardly surprising. Not after the career he has had, and certainly not after the past three months he has had. What will make it feel just a little bit unique is the roller coaster ride Donovan’s national team career has been on over the course of the past year.

Consider the events of exactly one year ago, when the USA recorded the victory that helped secure a place in the Hexagonal Round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. Landon Donovan wasn’t there for that important victory against Guatemala at Sporting Park (he was injured), and it marked his fourth straight missed qualifier. That stretch of absences came before his highly-publicized and self-imposed sabbatical, and before Jurgen Klinsmann’s subsequent decision to leave Donovan out of the team.

One year later, Donovan’s decision to take a break from the game is looking like a master stroke. He has looked re-energized and as dangerous as he has in years. He attacked July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup with vigor and showed all the qualities that have helped him have what is arguably the best career in national team history.

What we see now is a hungry Donovan, and selfless Donovan who is having fun again, and perhaps just as importantly, he returns to the U.S. national team setup not as its savior, but rather as an integral piece to the puzzle. Nobody is expecting him to carry the USA, simply do his part as an indispensable weapon. As Michael Bradley stated so perfectly a month ago, if the USA wants to make some noise at the World Cup, it need Donovan for that to happen.

This isn’t to say that Donovan still can’t be the team’s driving force, particularly in the attack. The injury absences of Dempsey and Bradley for the upcoming qualifiers will give Donovan yet another opportunity to spearhead the offense, just as he did in the Gold Cup, but now Klinsmann will be able to find some new ways to utilize Donovan’s versatility. He could play Donovan as a second striker, or as a playmaker.

Having an in-form Donovan for the upcoming qualifiers should not only help the U.S. attack score goals. It will also allow Donovan’s national team career to come full circle. A year ago, it looked like his national career was on the wane, and we would be forced to start thinking about life without Donovan in a USA uniform. On Friday, Donovan will be on the field at Sporting Park, where he was absent a year ago, and he will have his latest chance to remind us that he is far from done making things happen in a USA uniform.

CAMERON’S OPPORTUNITY AT CENTER BACK

Omar Gonzalez’s withdrawal from the U.S. national team camp marks the latest in a series of events that suddenly have the center back position on shaking ground heading into the upcoming qualifiers. Clarence Goodson is dealing with a knee injury, John Brooks was sidelined by an elbow injury, and Matt Besler’s recent club form hasn’t been up to his usually high standard.

What that series of events should do is provide an opportunity for Geoff Cameron to have a look at center back for the first time since last February’s World Cup qualifying loss to Honduras. Prior to that, Cameron had looked like the center back of the future on the U.S. team, but his struggles in that match, coupled with a lack of playing time at center back with Stoke City, caused him to fall out of the national team’s centerback pecking order.

Cameron brings a unique blend of size, speed, athleticism and on-the-ball skill to the position that could definitely allow him to seize a regular starting role in central defense. The fact that he starts at right back for Stoke City doesn’t help, but as Klinsmann has shown with Seattle Sounders midfielder Brad Evans playing at right back, the U.S. coach isn’t afraid to deploy a player at a position that isn’t his regular club position.

Cameron’s opportunity in central defense should also be a motivator for Besler, who hasn’t been in the best form lately, and who didn’t play the sharpest match in his last national team outing. The next two matches will be a great opportunity for Besler to re-assert himself as the top centerback in the pool, and if both he and Cameron work well together in their first national team partnership, Klinsmann could wind up finding himself a tandem that works heading into 2014.

CHANDLER’S NATIONAL TEAM EXILE

Tim Chandler is a regular starter with German Bundesliga side Nuremberg, and has all the qualities you look for in an international right back. So why was he left off yet another U.S. national team roster despite playing a position that isn’t exactly a deep one for the USA? Klinsmann hasn’t come out and said it, but it looks pretty clear that the U.S. coach has grown tired of waiting for Chandler to show commitment to the national team.

How else do we explain the fact that Chandler hasn’t been with the national team since his cap-tying appearance as a starter in last February’s World Cup qualifying loss to Honduras? Klinsmann has left Chandler out repeatedly, and while some of those instances appeared to be due to injuries, the latest snub makes it clear that not all is well with Chandler’s national team standing.

Can you blame Klinsmann if he has grown tired of Chandler’s seeming indifference to the national team? It was one thing when Chandler was turning down repeated call-ups prior to being cap-tied. Back then you could at least entertain the thought that maybe, just maybe, Chandler was still uncertain about tying himself to the USA.

Now that Chandler has already done that, and can only play for the United States, the idea that he would continue to turn down call-ups couldn’t have gone over very well with Klinsmann. To his credit, the U.S. coach hasn’t come right out and bashed Chandler, but his actions speak louder than words, and his decision to not include Chandler in September made it clear that Klinsmann wasn’t really factoring in Chandler anymore.

That still made it a little surprising to see Chandler excluded from the October squad, though it probably shouldn’t have been all that surprising. After running Landon Donovan through the ringer this summer following his sabbatical, we shouldn’t be all that surprised to see Klinsmann put Chandler through a similar process.

So when might we see Chandler again, if at all? The November friendlies offer Chandler a chance to rejoin the team while not enduring a heavy travel burden, but the real question is whether Chandler is even interested in doing what he needs to do to get back in Klinsmann’s good graces. If so, then November’s friendlies make plenty of sense as a chance to bring him back.

And if not? We may not see Tim Chandler in a USA uniform again for a very long time.

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