MANAUS, Brazil – Landon Donovan will find himself a long way from where he wants to be this week – 2,943 miles to be exact.
That is the distance from the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, where the United States plays Portugal in its critical second World Cup group game on Sunday, to Koka Booth Stadium in Cary, N.C., the site of Donovan’s return to action with the Los Angeles Galaxy on Tuesday night following a short break.
Donovan would dearly love to be in this hot and humid city nestled next to the Amazon jungle, a dream that was snatched away when he was left off Jurgen Klinsmann’s final 23-man roster for the tournament.
Instead, he will suit up for the Galaxy on Tuesday night against the Carolina RailHawks of the second-tier North American Soccer League, in the fifth round of the U.S. Open Cup – an annual knockout event that includes teams from Major League Soccer as well as the lower divisions of American soccer.
It is a different world to the pressure and intensity of soccer’s greatest show taking place here in Brazil. The game is being held in the Railhawks’ secondary facility because its main stadium is being resurfaced, meaning only around 3,000 will be able to watch the locals compete with a Galaxy team expected to include Donovan and Republic of Ireland forward Robbie Keane.
The Galaxy has lost to Carolina twice in the competition in recent years, but that was with lineups mainly comprised of back-up players. This time the California team is taking things more seriously.
“We are all expecting to play in this game,” Donovan told LAGalaxy.com. “We’re sick of losing to Carolina and we’re sick of going out of the Open Cup early. Also we don’t have any MLS games during this break so we need it for fitness. We’re excited for it and I’ve said to [Galaxy coach Bruce Arena] early on that I want to play as much as possible in this tournament.”
The tiny venue in Cary has a capacity that could fit inside the Arena da Amazonia roughly 14 times over, but RailHawks’ president Curt Johnson told Yahoo Sports via email that he expects Donovan to receive a rousing welcome, even though he is on a rival team.
“(Landon) is one of the best players to ever put on a MLS/US Soccer uniform and we all have a tremendous respect for his career to date and what he has meant to soccer in general in the United States,” Johnson said. “I suspect many fans will use it as a time to salute him [and I support that] and once the game starts everyone will focus on the result.”
Given the outpouring of support for Donovan and the outcry aimed at Klinsmann when the fateful decision was made, it is easy to forget that Donovan often divided opinion among fans during a national team career that spanned more than a decade but is now surely over.
[Photos: USMNT as comic book characters]
American fans perhaps only realized how much they loved Donovan once he was gone. The ovation he received when returning to the Galaxy against the Philadelphia Union three days after being left off the U.S. roster was emotive and uplifting.
In all probability, he will be positively received wherever he plays for the rest of the season.
Don’t expect everything to go his way on the field though. The RailHawks, according to Johnson, are riding a 22-game unbeaten streak at home, hold a 4-2 record against MLS teams in the US Open Cup and have a big scalp in their sight again.
When you are a lower league team in the U.S. those targets don’t get much bigger than the Galaxy and Donovan, even if the L.A. star's mind is elsewhere right now.