COLUMBUS, Ohio – It was "just pinkeye" and not a black eye, but it was somehow appropriate that Landon Donovan's road back to the World Cup was completed with him looking like he'd been through 12 rounds of championship boxing.
However, the condition was not enough to prevent Donovan from having a hand in both American goals and cap off his journey from national team outcast to – barring injury or incident – a World Cup participant for the fourth time.
The past week marked the Los Angeles Galaxy star's first involvement in this World Cup qualifying campaign, as U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann kept him out of the squad for months following his brief hiatus from the game in which he went traveling and rediscovered his love of soccer. Doubts were raised about whether Donovan would be seen at his best in a national team shirt again.
Those concerns were emphatically laid to rest here at Crew Stadium, as the Americans punched their ticket to Brazil 2014 thanks primarily to a rousing win over their most bitter rival.
"Even when Landon was taking his break, he was a guy that we need on the pitch," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "He strikes fear into the other teams."
Mexico was no exception. Donovan first set up Eddie Johnson's 49th-minute goal with a perfectly placed corner kick for a 1-0 U.S. lead, then sealed the victory with his own right foot with 12 minutes left.
If, during those months on the outside, Donovan was initially surprised and stung by Klinsmann's tough stance, he now sees the wisdom in being forced to battle his way back in.
"The best teams in the world operate that way," Donovan said. "There are not many teams or many players where you say they are going to play no matter what, every game. It is good for us. From game to game you have to perform or you might not play the next game. It makes for more competition. It makes the team deeper."
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Donovan has experienced highs and lows at the World Cup, bursting onto the international scene as a youngster in 2002 as part of an American team that reached the quarterfinals, then struggling to cope with the weight of expectation four years later in a winless showing in Germany.
Then there was 2010 and that goal, the strike against Algeria that sent the U.S. into the knockout round and catapulted soccer, for a few heady days anyway, to the forefront of the national sporting psyche.
Now, Landon Donovan is heading to Brazil next summer, returning for one more crack at soccer's promised land.
"I am really excited," Donovan said, fresh from celebrating with his teammates once they realized a 2-2 draw between Honduras and Panama meant the U.S. had clinched its World Cup spot. "As I am getting older now I am probably more excited for the guys who haven't had the chance to experience a night like this."
And then, mid-smile, he checked himself and spoke the words that would have warmed Klinsmann's heart.
"But there is no guarantee," he added, pausing for a moment, "that any of us are at the World Cup next year."
"We always said that Landon is an important part of our team," Klinsmann said. "He always had to understand that he can't take anything for granted – he had to work his way back."
[Photos: Team USA vs. El Tri]