BALTIMORE – If mustering sufficient motivation is still problematic for Landon Donovan, there's little telling anymore.
After taking a four-month sabbatical from the sport last winter, candidly explaining that his desire to play soccer had been on the wane for years, Jurgen Klinsmann made it plainly clear to Donovan that he'd have to earn his way back into the U.S. national team. And if doing it in the midst of the B-team of prospects and re-treads being sent to the Gold Cup this summer was beneath him, that was his decision to make.
Landon made it. He went.
Then he saw. And he dominated.
After turning in one strong performance after another in the U.S.'s perfect group stage, converting two penalties and dispatching three assists, the fire in his game was stoked even higher on Sunday. In the first half of the USA's 5-1 Gold Cup quarterfinals win over El Salvador, U.S. Soccer's one-time golden boy set up the first goal, enabled the second and craft another handful of chances. In the second, he would add two more assists and score a goal of his own.
With the win the United States men not only advanced to the semifinals, but made history. The win over El Salvador was the Americans' ninth straight in full internationals -- the longest such winning streak in US national team history.
"Landon again today proved how valuable he is and how he can make a difference," Klinsmann said. "This game was also important for us coaches to see who is a difference-maker out there, who - maybe when things are going the wrong way - can take the game on their feet. Landon was one of those players today."
The affair may have initially been sluggish and the Americans relegated for the most part to pounding the Salvadoran back line with crosses and long balls, but Donovan stood in stark contrast to the sloth surrounding him. Tearing about like a jitterbug, he cut roomy paths through all the blue jerseys permanently stationed behind the ball.
That's how Donovan zipped to the back line on a sharp Michael Parkhurst chip pass in the 21st minute. Once he caught up to it, inches before the back line, Donovan cut back and coolly picked out the streaking Clarence Goodson for a wide-open tap-in to the empty net.
Following a pair of good Nick Rimando saves at the other end, Donovan instigated another handsome attack with his insistence on charging at his opponents. In the 29th minute, he laid off the ball for Chris Wondolowski on one such run. The in-form striker, who demonstrated no evidence of his recent soaring performances on the day, tapped it on to Joe Corona at the edge of the box. Corona, in another standout game from him, coolly slotted his finish against the grain into the low corner.
If Donovan missed two good chances of his own in the opening half, he could be forgiven, because his teammates neglected to convert their own looks. That seemed, for a brief moment, like it might come back to haunt the Americans, as the indomitable and indefatigable Rodolfo Zelaya ripped into the U.S.'s defense yet again in the 39th and deferred his shot until DaMarcus Beasley finally leveled him with a shoulder block. Zelaya's softly dinked penalty made it 2-1, and made it a game again.
But in the second act, the USA forged a better rhythm, combining deftly and drawing El Salvador out of its shell. Yet it was Donovan who would once again manage to put his mark on the half. In the 60th minute, he curled his shortly-taken corner onto Eddie Johnson's head just so. Johnson, who had come on 14 seconds prior, had only to smack his newly blond hairline against the ball to make it 3-1. And he would return the favor in the 78th, when he headed a long ball on into the path of Donovan, who beat Mardoqueo Henriquez on speed, rounded goalkeeper Dagoberto Portillo and easily scored the Americans' fourth. He slid across the freshly laid sod on his knees. He'd pressed hard to score a goal; it was his mother's 60th birthday.
Then, as his grand finale, Donovan raced to the back line yet again on the precise service of Kyle Beckerman and lifted his cross onto the head of a very solid Mix Diskerud to make it five. As the Americans celebrated, the streaming rain and airborne beer soaked those in the lower bowl of a sold out and pro-El Salvador M & T Bank Stadium. No matter, the USA was on to Wednesday's semifinals in Dallas.
"He's loving it; and we're loving it," said Beasley, a teammate of Donovan's for a decade and a half. "He's doing so much for the team. We're happy he's back. He's where he should be and where he needs to be. He's contributing every single game, with goals and assists, but defensively as well. He keeps our team ticking."
Heading into this game, Donovan had 53 goals and 52 assists for his USA career, both comfortably records.
By the end of it, he had 54 and 55. And from the looks of it, more shall come from the 31-year-old.
"He's en fuego right now," said Wondolowski. "He's a special player. Especially when he's rested and mentally and physically in tune, he's one of the best."
Donovan, as ever, was loath to talk about himself, choosing to deflect attention to the collective.
When pressed, he would make just one declarative statement on his own performances: "I'm enjoying myself."