Star midfielder Landon Donovan made his return to the field on Saturday… (Chris Young / Associated…)
Lost in the euphoria over the United States national team's tie with Mexico in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday was one simple fact: This American team isn't very good.
Gritty, gutty, determined, yes. But good? Not so much.
Consider that in three World Cup qualifiers this year the U.S. has scored twice, been outshot by a margin of more than 2 to 1 — including an incredible 17-1 in the Mexico game — and managed only three shots on goal.
Its only win came in a snowstorm near Denver in a game that should have been suspended.
But there is an easy way to make the U.S. team significantly better before its next round of qualifiers in June: Bring back Landon Donovan, who ended his self-imposed four-month sabbatical Saturday when he returned to the field with the Galaxy.
If that sounds like a no-brainer, in some ways it is. Yet, it's also a move fraught with peril and one U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann would have to think through carefully.
Donovan hasn't exactly been a model teammate since December, when he went AWOL. Citing physical and mental exhaustion, he abandoned the U.S. team for the start of the final round of qualifying for Brazil 2014 and shunned soccer completely, a decision that clearly did not sit well with Klinsmann, who demands a 24/7 commitment from his players.
But does Klinsmann, who has lacked continuity and offense in his 20 months as coach, really have a choice? In 25 games with the national team, he has started 25 lineups. And Jozy Altidore, the man he has used most often in Donovan's place, hasn't scored a goal in the run of play since June 2011.
Donovan has more goals (49) and more assists (48) than any player in U.S. national team history. He brings a creativity, a presence and a panache Klinsmann's team has lacked. Opposing teams would have to account for Donovan even when he didn't have the ball, opening up chances for Clint Dempsey, who is succeeding Donovan as America's best player.
Still, Klinsmann said this month he had not decided whether Donovan would be invited back.
"If he will become part of our plans again, that depends on how he comes back and how I look at the whole picture and how I look at the development of this team," Klinsmann said. "The door is always open, as I said, but at the end of the day I will make decisions based on what I think is best for this team going forward."
Donovan, who is as intelligent as he is talented, has been adamant in his desire to return to the U.S. team. He knows he has to persuade Klinsmann and the national team players of his renewed commitment.
If he were invited back, Donovan almost certainly would be put on some kind of double-secret probation until he could earn back that trust. Which is why he struck a humble and conciliatory tone in a conference call with the media Thursday.
"I would absolutely love to be a part of the national team again going forward," Donovan said. "I am itching to represent my country again and be a part of it. I also understand very clearly that some decisions I have made are going to make that a difficult task.
"But it's a task that I'm willing to take on and that I'm excited to take on."
What Donovan didn't do is apologize for his break. After averaging a game every eight days for a dozen years, he was physically and mentally fried. He had lost his passion for the sport and was considering retirement at age 30.
But after four months away from soccer — he didn't even watch a game until early March — Donovan says he is rejuvenated. And a rejuvenated Donovan is something the U.S. national team could clearly use.
"If I didn't take this time off, I would have been useless to everybody this year in a professional setting," said Donovan, who spent most of his break traveling and visiting with family members. "I absolutely needed it. And I'm very glad that I did it."
For more than a decade Donovan has been the face of the U.S. national team, playing in more World Cup games (12) and scoring more World Cup goals (five) than any other American man in history. So he probably earned a vacation — as well as a second chance.
Given recent results, it's clear that Donovan's country needs him again — and it's just as clear that he's willing to serve.
"It could be great for the national team," Galaxy teammate and U.S. national defender Omar Gonzalez told reporters when asked about Donovan's return. "He's just another option to threaten teams behind. He brings a lot of speed, and teams respect him.
"He's also a great leader, so having him back would be great for everyone."
Including Klinsmann. Now the next move belongs to him.