A few months back, soccer, let alone the World Cup, was the furthest thing from Landon Donovan's mind. Yet as the prodigal son of the United States men's national team prepares for his first appearance in the final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014, he does so with the ultimate prize firmly in sight.
"I can envision scarves around our neck, American flags, the crowd going crazy and everybody celebrating together," Donovan said this week.
He was talking about the scene he and his colleagues hope to experience at Columbus' Crew Stadium next Tuesday night, a scenario whereby the team would have clinched its spot in the World Cup next summer with two games to spare.
Such an outcome would likely require back-to-back victories – first at Costa Rica on Friday and then against Mexico in Ohio – and the most notable thing about the comment was not Donovan's confident tone but his focus on the future.
That was something he was not willing to ponder at the end of the 2012 Major League Soccer season. The Los Angeles Galaxy star embarked on a prolonged sabbatical to take time to reflect, briefly flirt with retirement, jet off to Cambodia, capture some inner peace and report late (with permission) for the Galaxy's season.
As a result, he was promptly left out of Jurgen Klinsmann's national team roster. The coach was unconvinced Donovan had sufficiently rediscovered his motivational mojo and forced arguably the best U.S. player ever to regain that trust.
It was a task Donovan eventually and emphatically accomplished by willingly playing alongside a second-string U.S. team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, leading the Americans to the title and collecting goals, confidence and kudos along the way. Not surprisingly, he was included in the full squad for the visit to Costa Rica, a venue that has traditionally caused the U.S. nothing but headaches.
Donovan hopes and believes that his energy and experience – he is seeking to qualify for what would be his fourth World Cup – can carry the team to what would be its 13th straight win and a major step closer to a place among the game's elite next June.
"I don't think I have ever felt as confident about getting a result on one of these trips," Donovan said. "The beauty of it is that it is in our hands. We have put ourselves in a fantastic position and now we need to … smell the blood and finish it off."
Klinsmann's team sits atop the six-team CONCACAF final qualification pool on 13 points, two clear of Costa Rica. The top three finishers automatically reach the World Cup, with the fourth team facing a playoff against New Zealand.
Next year would almost certainly be Donovan's last World Cup and there is a sense that nine months out his mindset has rarely been more energized.
"I feel like I really deserve to be here," he said. "I feel like I've really earned it, and I also feel like I can really help."