By CAITLIN MURRAY
STANFORD, Calif. — Landon Donovan is, by most estimations, the best player in U.S. Men’s National Team history – but he isn’t taking a fourth consecutive World Cup appearance for granted.
As things stand, Donovan is one of the 30 players vying for 23 roster spots, and while he seems every bit like a lock, Donovan isn’t ready to call himself one and neither is his coach.
“I liken it to 2002. In 2006 and 2010, I knew for the most part unless I was awful I was going to make the team,” Donovan told reporters Monday before training at Stanford University. “This time is more similar to 2002 when I was wasn’t sure.”
“In that way, it’s as competitive as it’s been personally for me in a long time.”
Donovan may have some doubt about making the final 23-man roster, but he does not lack confidence about still being good enough to help the team when it faces the so-called “Group of Death” in Brazil next month.
“No, I don’t have doubt,” Donovan said when asked how confident he is about making the World Cup team. “I’m very confident in my abilities and I think I’m deserving to be a part of the squad, but I have to prove that and I have to earn it.”
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has certainly sent a message that no player is safe. He opted to bring in 30 players to the final pre-World Cup training camp, declaring it would be a fierce battle for roster spots, and he likely won’t name his final 23-player roster until the June 2 deadline.
For bubble players, it’s created a sense of opportunity. But for a player like 32-year-old Donovan who has been a leader of the USMNT for years, it means facing a challenge from younger players and having to prove himself all over again as he fights both the team’s impressive depth.
“This brings the best out of everyone because everyday guys are fighting for a chance to play in a World Cup and you never know when you’re going to get that chance again,” Donovan said. “So it’s made it very challenging but a lot of fun.
“Every coach is different clearly,” Donovan said when asked about Klinsmann. “Jurgen hasn’t wavered from Day One in the way he coaches the team so we have a very good understanding of what’s expected, what he wants. He pushes us hard. He knows what it takes to be a world champion, none of us know that.
“He understands it very clearly and he pushes us to our limits so when we get to June 16, we’re fully prepared.”
Uncertainty about Donovan’s potential place on the World Cup roster is buoyed by Klinsmann’s track record with handling Donovan. He has never been afraid to make tough decisions regarding Donovan.
In 2013, Klinsmann left Donovan out of the U.S. team during June World Cup qualifiers after Donovan took a sabbatical from the sport, which caused him to miss March qualifiers. Just last month Klinsmann benched Donovan for the friendly against Mexico after what he considered to be sub-par training sessions from Donovan.
“Landon Donovan – the media thinks he’s untouchable,” Klinsmann told ESPN ahead of announcing his 30-man training camp roster. “The media thinks he has to be in the starting lineup or he has to be in Brazil based on what he did, and he did marvelous for soccer in the United States over the last 12, 14 years.”
“That’s not how it works. I have to choose the best 23 players based on what I see today.”
Klinsmann’s past treatment of Donovan has helped push along a rumored strained relationship between the two. A rumor Donovan flatly denies about the coach who once brought him to Bayern Munich.
“Those reports were not true,” Donovan said Monday when asked about a rumored rift with Klinsmann.
Donovan has backed Klinsmann’s handling of his situations in the past, and readily admits that at his age, and given the amount of soccer he has played in his career, it is tougher for him now to stay at a high level.
“There’s going to be training sessions during these days where guys don’t have 100 percent energy, but it’s part of fighting through it and I feel like my energy has been really good,” said Donovan, who admitted on Monday to having a cold.
Whether or not Donovan is in a real battle to even make the squad, there is still belief among his U.S. teammates that he is a very important teammate. Last year, Michael Bradley stated that the U.S. would need Donovan to play well if the team had any hopes of advancing deep in the World Cup. Asked Monday about Donovan’s comments earlier in the day that he was unsure he’d make the team, U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard made it clear that Donovan is still seen as one of the team’s most important and best players.
“For me, it’s me a very easy equation – if he’s on the field, he’s our top one or two players,” Howard said. “That’s just my opinion, whether that means anything or not, I don’t know. Landon’s humble and I’m sure he feels that way, but for me, he’s easily one of our best players and he strikes fear in opponents.”
Even as questions swirl about whether Donovan will make the cut, he said is enjoying the journey a bit more than he has in the past.
“I don’t have that youthful energy and excitement that I did in 2002. But I see the game and the situation a lot more clearly now and so I’m able to I think enjoy it more,” Donovan said. “When you’re younger, you just kind of go crazy trying to make the team and you forget to enjoy it.”