CHICAGO — Burned out and exhausted from more than a decade as the standard bearer for U.S. soccer, Landon Donovan needed a break.
For four months last winter, soccer was the last concern for the career scoring leader for the U.S. national team. He spent time with family and friends, traveled to far-flung places, reveled in his respite from the spotlight.
And he rediscovered his love for the game he'd been so desperate to escape.
A rejuvenated Donovan is a big reason the Americans are in today's CONCACAF Gold Cup final against Panama. He has five goals in five games, tied for a tournament high, and seven assists.
"I've enjoyed myself tremendously," Donovan said Saturday. "I've enjoyed helping with the younger guys. I've enjoyed being a part of a team that really doesn't have ego, that's really excited about this opportunity."
Donovan wasn't enjoying much after helping the Los Angeles Galaxy win its second straight MLS title Dec. 1. Saddled with the title of "best player the U.S. has ever produced" since his two goals at the 2002 World Cup, nothing Donovan did was good enough for some critics. Failed stints playing in Germany fueled the negativity, then his L.A. success was overshadowed by David Beckham's arrival.
So when Donovan, 31, said he needed a break, the Galaxy told him to take the time he needed.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn't quite so understanding. He left Donovan off the roster for a series of World Cup qualifiers.
"He knew his way back to this group only goes through hard work," Klinsmann said. "Because of what he achieved in the past, his benchmark is higher than a lot of the other guys."
In Donovan's first game with the Americans after an 11-month absence, he scored twice in an exhibition against Guatemala and became the first U.S. player to surpass 50 goals. And he has been dazzling in the Gold Cup.
Though Klinsmann hasn't indicated who will be on his roster for the next round of World Cup qualifiers this fall, it's hard to see him bypassing Donovan again.
"We are happy with how things are going. And I'm not saying that because he's sitting next to me right now," Klinsmann said. "He's (been) very good … on all levels, and this is, for us, very, very good."