SAN DIEGO (AP) – Landon Donovan is the biggest name in American soccer, though U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has little respect for that distinction.
U.S. Soccer's all-time leader in goals and assists lost his standing on the national team thanks to a 144-day sabbatical where he completely stepped away from the game. He returned to the Los Angeles Galaxy on March 30, but Klinsmann didn't include him on the roster for World Cup qualifiers in June.
Klinsmann wasn't impressed by Donovan's form, and his reputation didn't alter that stance. It did help him land on the roster for the less prestigious Gold Cup, a campaign preceded by Friday's friendly against Guatemala at Qualcomm Stadium.
Donovan's on a roster largely devoid of big-names, with few having a lock on a full-strength U.S. roster. Though Donovan would seem to be an exception, Klinsmann doesn't see it that way.
''I come from a different background and in soccer it's normal to have to work your way back into the mix,'' said the former German national team player and coach. ''When someone takes time off or has an injury, we evaluate that case from zero. We respect the past accomplishments, but that doesn't help you tomorrow. It doesn't help you today.''
Donovan hasn't taken offense. He's saying all the right things, that he's excited about the challenge of reclaiming his place as focal point of the American attack.
''I am very excited to be back,'' Donovan said. ''It's been a long year or so since I've been in. I'm in a little bit of a different place than I was before. Jurgen has created an environment where you are really competing consistently to be a part of this team. And now, I am very much on the outside looking in. I've got to make my way back in, and I'm looking forward to it.''
The same can be said for midfielder Stuart Holden. He returned to the national team for June's World Cup qualifiers for the first time since Oct. 2010 due to various injuries. The latest was a 2011 knee injury beset with setbacks. He made short reserve appearances during the World Cup qualifiers, but will get a chance to start and prove himself worthy of a second straight World Cup roster spot.
''I think this is a great opportunity to show Jurgen that I can be a 90 minute player and a go-to guy for this team. As a competitor you never want to play a substitute role, but I'll take the minutes I can get. I want to make an impact these next two weeks and work my way into a starting spot as we head toward the World Cup next summer.''
While Klinsmann will evaluate the entire roster, some will follow Holden's progress and DaMarcus Beasley's first captaincy, public focus will be on Donovan's progress.
His return to form has been slower than expected during the MLS season. He has three goals and six assists in 13 games with the Galaxy, but hasn't been his dynamic self since the return.
''I am a lot closer to where I'd like to be,'' Donovan said. ''Part of getting older means you don't have as much explosiveness, you're not as dynamic as you once were and that's all part of it. That's part of evolving in general. As far as the soccer part of it goes, I am pretty close. I am excited about this opportunity to take it up a level and see how I do and how I can perform against competition that is going to be difficult. I'm ready for it. I know it's going to be an exciting month.''
Klinsmann knows how good Donovan can be, and he'll give Donovan a chance to work his way back into the mix. If he can do so starting with this Gold Cup, Donovan could secure a spot in his fourth straight World Cup.
That spot will have to be earned, not given.
''He's back in the picture and he'll get his opportunities,'' Klinsmann said. ''We know what he's done for the game over the last 10-15 years, but soccer is always about today. It's about performance and consistency, and Landon knows that. We're happy to have him back.''