If Landon Donovan had his way, he’d stop and smell the flowers on his way to Brazil for what in all likelihood will be his last World Cup this summer.
But if he pauses too long there’s a chance he won’t make it that far. So Donovan is taking this month’s U.S. training camp at Stanford University more seriously than usual.
“Well for me personally, I sort of liken it to 2002,” says Donovan, who made his World Cup debut that year. “In '06 and in 2010 I knew, for the most part — unless I was awful — that I was going to make the team. This time is more similar to '02, where I wasn’t sure.
“So in that way, yes, it’s as competitive as it’s been for me personally in a long time.”
If Donovan makes the team and appears in a game in Brazil, he will be the first American to play in four World Cups. But that’s by no means a certainty. The 32-year-old has been bothered most of the spring by a sore left knee. With his club team, the Galaxy, he’s gone nine starts without a goal, dating to last October.
That run of form could hurt Donovan, who is battling five other forwards for one of four likely spots on the final 23-man U.S. roster.
“I’m very confident in my abilities. And I think I’m deserving to be a part of the squad,” Donovan said. “But I have to prove that and I have to earn it.”
Donovan is U.S. soccer’s all-time leader in goals and assists. And he’s already played more games and scored more goals in World Cup play than any American. But while Coach Juergen Klinsmann says those are milestones to be proud of, they won’t help him come June 2 when Klinsmann makes the final cut to get his roster down to the tournament limit of 23 players.
“With all the appreciation, with all the admiration for what he’s done throughout his career -- which is extraordinary and he deserves the compliments that he gets -- soccer is about what happens today and what you do today and what you hopefully do tomorrow,” he said. “I’m not building my roster or we’re not building the group together based on the past.
“We build that group based on what we kind of experienced and go through together and what we believe, as of today, is the right decision. It’s going to be about we what believe as of June 2, 2014. And we need to feel good about that."
Donovan and Klinsmann have reportedly had a strained relationship for some time — something Donovan denies. And there was definitely tension between the two after Donovan took a three-month sabbatical at the start of World Cup qualifying last year.
But Donovan played his way back onto the team with a spectacular performance in last summer’s Gold Cup.
“Every coach is different. Juergen hasn’t wavered from Day 1 in the way he coaches the team,” Donovan says of the coach, who won a World Cup with Germany and then coached that country to a third-place finish in 2006. “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.”
And while that may be making Donovan a better player, it’s also making it tougher for him to appreciate what may be the start of his final ride into the sunset.
“This is my last chance at this. So in that way, it keeps it new and exciting for me,” he said. “Perhaps if I make the team and I get to Brazil, then it will maybe set in a little bit. Right now we’re all in the mode where we’re competing. And we’re trying to make a team.
“So it really consumes most of your energy all the time in making sure you’re preparing right, training right, doing all the right things to make the team.”