By Michael Lewis
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The CONCACAF Gold Cup was supposed to be a proving ground for Landon Donovan in his attempt to get back on the United States’ roster radar for upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
The competition has traditionally been good him from both personal and team perspectives. He tops all-time scoring list with 18 goals and has lifted the trophy three times.
Donovan, though, took a self-imposed three-month sabbatical from the sport earlier this year to recharge his physical and mental batteries. In his return to the national team this month, the 31-year-old has put on one of the most memorable performances in the Gold Cup’s 22-year history.
His production through five matches has been staggering. Donovan has had a hand in 12 of the Americans' 19 goals -- five goals, which leaves him level with teammate Chris Wondolowski and Panama's Gabriel Torres for the tournament lead, and a competition-best seven assists.
In a rematch of the 2005 final, the U.S. will play Panama for the crown at Soldier Field in Chicago Sunday.
"You can tell he's playing with a lot of confidence," said midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who set up both of Donovan's goals in a 3-1 semifinal win over Honduras. "And a goal-scorer when you're able to find your own spots in the box, you make your own luck, so to speak. He's finding those spots."
Indeed, he is…plus, much more.
"He's proving a point that he's hungry to come back into our picture," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "Every game he wants to prove it and show that, and he's doing very well."
Whether the LA Galaxy star has regained a spot on the qualifying roster in his effort to play in a fourth World Cup, Klinsmann isn't telling -- at least not yet.
"I told him in our conversations that my benchmark is the best Landon Donovan ever," Klinsmann said. "I'm not taking anything less than that."
Donovan has been savoring every minute. In fact, he had played every minute of every game before Wondolowski replaced him in the 72nd minute of Wednesday’s semifinal.
“I’m enjoying myself,” Donovan said, who is only the player to score at least one goal in six different Gold Cups. “I think it’s the most relaxed I’ve ever felt and the most enjoyable it’s felt in a long time. When that’s the case, I play well.”
If that remains the case Sunday, Donovan will have proven yet another point...to himself and the soccer world.