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Back With a Vengeance

American Donovan Goes From Bystander to Standout

United States' Landon Donovan celebrates his goal against Mexico during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Mexico 2-0. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

United States' Landon Donovan celebrates his goal against Mexico during the second half of a World Cup qualifying soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, in Columbus, Ohio. The United States defeated Mexico 2-0. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Landon Donovan not only is back, he’s better than ever.

A four-month sabbatical cost him his spot on the U.S. national team, but the 31-year-old rejoined the group in July and led the Americans to victory in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. That earned him a roster spot when World Cup qualifying resumed, and his goal and assist spurred the U.S. to a berth-clinching 2-0 win over Mexico on Tuesday night.

“I firmly believe that life’s happening the way it’s supposed to, and I’m meant to be here right now,” Donovan said after Tuesday night’s win. “So I’m glad that I can be a part of this.”

Donovan first gained widespread attention at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Championship, where he won the Golden Ball as most valuable player as the U.S. reached the semifinals. Now he’s on track for his fourth World Cup.

He’s started all 12 matches the U.S. has played at the last three tournaments, scoring against Poland, Mexico, Slovenia, Algeria and Ghana.

But a few months ago, he wasn’t sure he’d wear his country’s jersey again.

Burned out after helping the Los Angeles Galaxy to a second straight Major League Soccer title last Dec. 1, Donovan wasn’t certain until mid-January that he wanted to keep playing. He missed preseason training and didn’t return to the field for Los Angeles until March 30.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann bypassed him for three qualifiers in June, saying there were players ahead of him in the depth chart. Kansas City’s Graham Zusi had taken over as the starter in right midfield.

Donovan’s opportunity came in the Gold Cup, when Klinsmann used something akin to a “B” team while Europe-based regulars vacationed and returned to their clubs ahead of the new season. Donovan had five goals and seven assists, earning another MVP award.

“We always said that Landon is an important part of our team, and the things that he went through, that was his decision, and we were totally fine with that,” Klinsmann said. “But he also had to understand he’s not getting anything for granted. He has to work his way back. He has to fight his way back. And that’s what he did with the Gold Cup to start with, and now coming here. He understands the message clearly that nobody has a spot guaranteed.”

During last Friday night’s game at Costa Rica and Tuesday’s match at Columbus Crew Stadium, Donovan appeared rejuvenated. Despite conjunctivitis that made his right eye a narrow slit, his corner kicks were precise and created the breakthrough first goal by Eddie Johnson against El Tri.

He had precise exchanges with Clint Dempsey. He tracked back on defense.

It was exactly what his fellow Americans missed when Donovan was traveling the globe last winter and doubting his future.

“We said that when he was in Cambodia hiking or wherever he was, (that) he’s a guy that when he’s on the field, he puts fear in any opponent,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “You can’t double down on Deuce (Dempsey) and you can’t mark him out of the game when you have to worry about Landon.”

Donovan already is the American record holder with 57 goals and 57 assists. His 153 international appearances are 11 shy of Cobi Jones’ U.S. mark.

He’s managed a difficult return. While his accomplishments and personality make him one of the team’s leaders along with Howard, Dempsey and Michael Bradley, after missing most of the qualifiers he made sure over and over to defer to the others.

Donovan also has grown increasingly introspective. Always bright and articulate, he doesn’t hide his emotions. He understands the changes under Klinsmann.

“The best thing he’s done is created lots of competition,” he said. “If you don’t do well and you don’t perform, you might not play the next game.”

Because the U.S. already has clinched, there will be limited games with the national team before May.

“As I’m getting older now I’m probably more excited for the guys who haven’t had a chance to experience a night like this,” he said outside the locker room at Crew Stadium. “Obviously there’s no guarantee any of us will be at the World Cup next year. To be able to have a night like this and be able to celebrate and qualify is really special.”