STANFORD, Calif. – There are still four weeks to go before the United States begins its World Cup campaign, but Landon Donovan is already locked in a battle.
And it is not the kind of fight that the Los Angeles Galaxy forward or U.S. national team fans are used to seeing him in.
Donovan, the USA's all-time leading scorer, is very much involved in the competition for one of 23 roster spots instead of being effectively guaranteed a place. Yet as he takes aim at a fourth, and almost certainly last, World Cup, the 32-year-old has both accepted and relished the challenge nearly a week into the team's training camp that will help head coach Jurgen Klinsmann pare down his pool of 30.
Seven players will be cut at the end of the month.
"For me personally I sort of liken it to 2002," Donovan said Monday before the team's training session at Stanford Stadium. "In 2006 and 2010, I knew for the most part that, unless I was awful, I was going to make the team. This time is more similar to 2002 where I wasn’t sure.
"In that way, it is as competitive as it has been personally in a long time. There is a lot of quality here and you can really make the case for any of the guys to be on the squad."
It is unlikely that Klinsmann would ditch Donovan from his final travelling party, though such an outcome cannot be entirely discounted. Donovan is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, player in American soccer history, but building a World Cup squad is not a simple matter of picking your most talented 23 players. It's about melding together the most cohesive collective unit.
Klinsmann has pushed Donovan, challenged him and cut him little slack ever since taking over in 2011. Following Donovan’s much-publicized sabbatical from soccer at the start of last year, the German-born coach refused to let him straight back into the squad, forcing him to wait his turn and regain his trust by playing in the Gold Cup alongside the U.S. program’s second-string players.
Several national team coaches have already named their final 23, ending any uncertainty leading into the tournament. Klinsmann is adamant the competition element gives his troops extra sharpness. Donovan agrees.
"I am very confident in my abilities and I feel like I am deserving to be a part of the squad," Donovan said. "I have enjoyed it a lot. This brings the best out of everyone because every day guys are fighting for a chance to be part of the World Cup. You never know when you will get that chance again so it has made it very challenging, but a lot of fun.
"The beauty is the guys get along very well. We go on the field, we compete and afterwards we are in the hotel hanging out and we are friends again."
Donovan has a fine World Cup record. In 2002, he was named best young player of the tournament and was pivotal in helping the Americans beat Mexico in the round of 16. Four years ago in South Africa, he rebounded from a disappointing 2006 tournament by adding three goals including that moment of extraordinary drama to beat Algeria and progress to the knockout stage.
"For me, it is a very easy equation," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, perhaps the only man in camp who is truly, barring injury or mishap, 100 percent guaranteed of a starting job. "If Landon is on the field he is one of our top one or two players, that is just my opinion.
"Whether that means anything or not, I don’t know, but for me he is easily one of our best players and strikes fear in opponents."
Klinsmann knows the value of Donovan’s natural ability and inherent knack for reading the game. If he is assured by the time camp is through that the forward possesses the necessary drive and hunger, the coach will likely put him on the list for Brazil. The player knows that if that initial target is met then other fights will follow – against Ghana, Portugal, Germany and possibly beyond.
If this is the last major battle of Landon Donovan’s national team career, it is a struggle worth winning.