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Refreshed and refocused, Donovan looks to win back national team place

Donovan (Getty)


WASHINGTON — On a rise above the Potomac River, among the Gothic architecture of Georgetown University’s two-century-old campus, one could find American soccer’s absentee star.

As Landon Donovan braved the cold, windy conditions during the Los Angeles Galaxy’s training session Thursday morning, he juggled a ball on his head, turned and hit a 35-yard volley from the right flank, grinning as it bounced into an empty net.

Having been away from soccer since the Galaxy won their second straight MLS Cup on Dec. 1, Donovan returned to practice this week, reinvigorated after a nearly four-month sabbatical. All told, he skipped five Galaxy games and a trio of crucial World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. national team, including a win over Costa Rica on Friday and a draw at Mexico on Tuesday.

“I wanted to get the enjoyment back,” Donovan said. “This week was pretty difficult watching the U.S. in those games when you want to be a part of it. So that feeling, I’m glad that feeling is back. That’s sort of what I wanted.”

During his absence, Donovan focused on his family. He felt the need to make up for lost time, after all, considering the all-consuming nature of a globe-trotting career that saw him labeled the face of U.S. Soccer as a teenager.

Now 31 years old and a three-time World Cup veteran, Donovan is more reflective, more concerned about life beyond the beautiful game. But his Galaxy teammates still see the same player who has been such a dominating force in MLS for the past decade.

“It’s like he never left,” said Galaxy and U.S. centerback Omar Gonzalez. “It’s good to see his face again around the team. … He looks refreshed, which is good.”

Donovan returned to the public eye Tuesday, gifting a jersey and ball to President Obama during a White House ceremony honoring the Galaxy and NHL champion Los Angeles Kings. Later, he answered children’s questions as part of the Obama administration’s “Let’s Move” initiative.

That night, some 2,500 miles away, the U.S. ventured into Estadio Azteca without Donovan and earned a valuable scoreless draw against El Tri. So when the U.S. (1-1-1) resumes the hexagonal stage of qualifying in June for three matches, does Donovan hope to be a part of it?

“I have a long way to go, both on the field and off the field, to work my way back into the national team, and that’s my goal,” Donovan said. “If that’s something that presents itself, that’s something I want to do. I miss being a part of that and I want to represent my country again.”

While U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has offered only tepid public support of Donovan’s self-imposed hiatus, the midfielder-forward feels good about the clarity of their dialogue. If nothing else, there seems to be an understanding between them.

“Jurgen and I have always been very open and honest with each other,” Donovan said. “That’s one thing I really respect most about him. He certainly hasn’t agreed with a lot of my choices, and that’s understandable. … But he’s always been very respectful, he’s always been supportive.”

Without Donovan, Klinsmann recently has leaned on the technically proficient play of Graham Zusi and Herculez Gomez on the flanks. Should Donovan return to form and fall back into Klinsmann’s good graces, the program’s all-time leading scorer can add another valuable dynamic to what lately has been a stagnant U.S. attack.

“He’s just another option to threaten teams from behind,” Gonzalez said. “He brings a lot of speed and teams respect him, teams respect who he is. He’s also a great leader, so having him back could be great for everyone.”

And if Donovan, who is targeting early April for his return to game action for the Galaxy, had any doubts about his desire to get back out there, they were snuffed when he watched Los Angeles take the field for its season opener March 3 against the Chicago Fire.

As the Galaxy rolled to a 4-0 win, he felt something he hadn’t truly felt in some time.

“I really had that itch again to play,” he said. “And I knew that I was ready.”


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