The U.S. men’s national team opened Qualcomm Stadium to the public Thursday to watch an hourlong practice. Near the entrance was a merchandise tent, and there were two jerseys you could buy with players’ names on the back.
One was Clint Dempsey.
One was Landon Donovan.
Dempsey isn’t here, given a rest after an arduous trek of World Cup qualifiers last month along with the bulk of Jurgen Klinsmann’s first-choice roster.
But Donovan is, scrimmaging in a yellow practice bib on a Fourth of July evening with Corey Ashe and Tony Beltran and Will Bruin and Joshua Gatt and Bill Hamid and Jack McInerney. Together, those six players have five appearances with the U.S. national team; Donovan has 144.
Klinsmann has not hid the overarching purpose of Friday night’s friendly there against Guatemala and the CONCACAF Gold Cup over the ensuing next three weeks. It’s a largely bunch of fringe guys trying to crack the big team ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Some may get another look. Most won’t.
“The players know,” Klinsmann said. “All of the players are kind of on the same page right now. They have to prove a point, and Landon is one of them … There’s a lot of stake with this group, including Landon.”
They are harsh, humbling words for the U.S. national team’s all-time leader in goals (49) and assists (48), for a guy who has played in three World Cups and won three Major League Soccer titles, for the man many consider the face of the sport in this country, for the wayward son returning home for the first time in nearly a year.
And they are words contr ary to the American sports paradigm that, when a star player gets hurt or is away from the game, he is automatically re-inserted into the starting lineup upon his return – no questions asked. You think Kobe Bryant is headed to the D-League for a month to “prove” he a spot on the Lakers roster once his Achilles tendon heals?
“I come from a different background, obviously,” said Klinsmann, a German by birth who also played in Italy, England and France. “I live most of the time through different European systems. For us, it’s just normal that if a player like him is taking his time off or he comes back from injury, then we evaluate that case from zero.
“Yes, we accept and respect always the past of the players and their career. We know what he’s done for the game over the past 10, 12, 14 years. But the game is about today. It’s about how you perform today and in the ne xt game. And he knows that.”
Donovan put it like this Thursday:
“It’s the reality. Our sport is different than any other in a lot of ways … This team always moves forward, and if you’re not on the train you’ve got to find a way to get back on. And that’s what I’m hoping to do.”
Donovan hopped off the train last fall, announcing after the MLS season that he needed some me-time to decide at age 31 whether he wanted to continue playing soccer. He disappeared for four months. He went to Cambodia for a while. He contemplated life and a round ball.