Defining moments are labeled as such for a reason, and whatever else Landon Donovan has or will accomplish in his soccer career, it will be for a handful of iconic fractions of time on the biggest stage of all that he will be primarily remembered.
United States' World Cup history is limited in both its quantity and success and Donovan, as a player who has provided the national team with some of its fondest memories, is the exception rather than the rule.The
In the breathless build-up to the next World Cup in Brazil in 17 months time, countless television highlight packages will be largely built around Donovan's exploits in the tournament, from his dramatic injury time winner against Algeria in 2010 to his comeback-launching thunderbolt against Slovenia, or his destruction of Mexico as a carefree 20-year-old in 2002.
Yet no longer can U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann afford to plan on Donovan being his centerpiece for 2014, even considering his pedigree, his status as the nation's best player ever and the most recognizable soccer star in the country.
Because while Donovan is still just 30 and has as much technical talent as ever, there is self-confessed evidence to suggest his mind is not in a place conducive to outstanding performance.
An interview on ESPN FC this week reported Donovan giving himself no better than a 50 percent chance of even playing in Brazil, something that may have startled Klinsmann somewhat.
When I spoke to Donovan at a similar point in the World Cup cycle four years ago his mindset was totally different. He could not wait for the chance to play in South Africa, to atone for his disappointing 2006 World Cup, to prove he could lead the U.S. on a global stage, to silence the critics.
Now, while he seems to have found a philosophical place in his life, soccer no longer seems to fulfill him, bringing Donovan to the point where he is mulling upon walking away from the game entirely.
That is unlikely to happen, at least within the next couple of years, but still, his comments in the ESPN interview were not like those you expect to hear from an elite athlete.
Donovan's honesty is sometimes abrasive but always refreshing, and it is a credit to him that he could admit that not all is well with his sporting mentality. Still, though, his words must be enough for Klinsmann to realize that it is time for a shift in policy.
Even though Donovan has played in only eight of 20 national team games since Klinsmann replaced Bob Bradley following the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he remains a talisman for the team and an automatic choice for selection – when fit.
Klinsmann has always been high on Donovan, so much so that he took him on loan to Bayern Munich during his ill-fated stint in charge there. But it is time to base Plan A on the assumption that he will not be around to boost the squad with his technical ability and clever touches.
Donovan must now be treated as a bonus, to be used willingly and wholeheartedly on the occasions when he is both healthy and motivated, but not to be relied upon, not to the all-compassing extent of the past.
As there is no direct equivalent of Donovan in U.S. soccer, searching for his heir apparent is a fool's errand that would do no one any favors. Instead, Klinsmann must look to maximize the effectiveness of the attacking options that he does have.
The German will pray that Clint Dempsey remains in outstanding form, while attempting to further maximize the positive outcome of his surprising risk on Eddie Johnson, who stood tall toward the end of the side's tricky passage into the final round of CONCACAF qualifying.
A team without Donovan would be missing some flair by default, and Klinsmann may be left with no choice but to adopt a more rugged and physical approach similar to the one that left many fans unsold of former coach Bradley. So be it.
There is still time for Donovan to reinvent himself and to get back to the headstrong man on a mission that went to South Africa. Yet the mission seems different now, as he talks about taking time out for solitary travel, laments the impact soccer achievement has had on his personal relationships, admits he is struggling for drive and says that missing out on a fourth World Cup wouldn't be so bad.
It need not be so bad for Klinsmann's side either, provided they are prepared for it. There remains an opening for Donovan to be a worthy contributor and even one of the stars in Brazil, but the era when he was the face of the team, the one looked to in moments of need, must now be over.
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