Landon Donovan provides fuel for American team’s takeoff

Two major questions faced the U.S. national team heading into the 2013 Gold Cup: Could a team made up largely of reserve players dominate the biennial regional tournament? And, would Landon Donovan, after an 11-month hiatus from international competition, prove that he remains one of the best American players and worthy of a spot on the World Cup team?

The answers: Yes, and a resounding yes.

The United States will play Honduras on Wednesday night in the semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, after a 5-1 win over El Salvador in the quarterfinals. That victory was the ninth in a row for the Unites States — four in the Gold Cup, three in World Cup qualifiers and two wins in friendlies. No other U.S. team in history has won nine consecutive international matches.

Through the four Gold Cup games, the United States has outscored opponents 16-3. A big reason the Americans have taken charge of this tournament is Donovan, the 31-year-old, three-time World Cup veteran. Showing no signs of rust from his time off, Donovan has scored five goals and had seven assists in the five games since his return.

Donovan looks confident. Although coach Jurgen Klinsmann did not give him the captain’s armband, the former U.S. captain is clearly respected by his teammates and displaying leadership skills that are vital on the road to the World Cup. He is a quick thinker, a precise passer and has been one of the most creative players on the field in every match.

He also looks happy and hungry, which was his objective when he took a self-imposed four-month sabbatical following last season with the Los Angeles Galaxy.

When he scored his goal against El Salvador, he dropped to his knees, looked up and reached to the sky in exultation. He dedicated the goal to his mother, who was celebrating her 60th birthday. He also allowed for a moment of levity before a corner kick, putting on a pair of sunglasses tossed on the field by an El Salvadoran fan trying to distract him.

“I’m just having a lot of fun,” Donovan told reporters after. “We’re getting more and more comfortable and the beauty of it is, we can score and create chances in a lot of different ways. Obviously, our set pieces have been very good. When we move the ball quickly and break teams down through the middle of the field, we’ve had chances that way.”

Klinsmann had been reluctant to let Donovan back on to the team until he proved not only his fitness, but also his commitment to the sport. He stressed that a player’s résumé, impressive as it might be, was not as important as the here and now.

Donovan would receive no favors from Klinsmann. He would have to earn his way back on to the roster. There is no question Donovan has been the Gold Cup MVP thus far, and one has to assume he will be on the team when it heads to Costa Rica for the next World Cup qualifier Sept. 6.

But Klinsmann won’t make that pronouncement just yet.

“For us, we take it one game at a time, and Landon again proved today how valuable he is,” Klinsmann said after the win over El Salvador. “For coaches, it’s important to see who’s a difference maker out there, who, when things go a little bit the wrong way, they take the game on themselves, and Landon was one of those players.”

The Americans will have to be on their game again against Honduras, which is expected to be a more formidable opponent than the ones they have faced thus far. Honduras beat Costa Rica 1-0 in the quarterfinals and last month lost 1-0 to the United States in a World Cup qualifier in Salt Lake City. Jozy Altidore scored the lone goal for the United States.

Los Catrachos as the Honduran players are known, lost in the semifinals the previous two Gold Cups and are eager to finally reach the championship game.

One of the Honduran players to watch is Andy Najar, who scored the quarterfinal goal against Costa Rica. Najar, 20, was born in Honduras and raised in Alexandria, Va. He signed with D.C. United in 2010 and now plays for Anderlecht in Belgium.

Klinsmann is pleased with the players so far, especially the speed of their collective game.

“We’re trying to catch up with the big teams in the world, and if you raise the bar, it’s all about speed,” Klinsmann said. “I’m not talking about physical speed. I’m taking about mental speed, passing speed. It’s about compactness, about going both ways the same way with 11 players involved, offensively, defensively. That’s what we’re working on.”

The U.S.-Honduras game will be played at 7 p.m. Panama plays Mexico in the later semifinal.