EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — In the litany of exhibitions, charity games and assorted tournaments that make up soccer’s calendar, the Gold Cup is an especially strange affair.
Staged every two years by the sport’s regional governing body, CONCACAF, this month’s iteration has featured: allegations from Belize regarding a failed attempt at match-fixing; dispirited play, including another disastrous performance from Mexico; and one team, Martinique, almost advancing to the knockout round despite being ineligible for the prize that goes to the tournament’s winner.
All that aside, these matches have a sliver of importance. Even in virtually meaningless games – such as the one here Tuesday’s between the United States and Costa Rica, which was only slightly more significant than MLB’s All-Star Game – there are at least two players on the U.S. team with obvious missions.
Landon Donovan and Stuart Holden are, for very different reasons, tantalizing enigmas for coach Jurgen Klinsmann as he prepares for the fall’s World Cup qualifiers and then, almost surely, for next year’s trip to Brazil. Like other top coaches in the tournament, Klinsmann brought something akin to a “B” team to these games, giving many of his star players – Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard among them – a needed rest.
Holden and Donovan, however, are hoping to show they are worthy of a permanent elevation to the elite group. Their plights make for a poetic juxtaposition, too: Holden, the chippy midfielder who has been derailed by injuries, is trying to show that he can be the international force everyone imagined he would be; Donovan, the veteran stalwart who took a sabbatical, is trying to show he is still an international force.
Donovan, in particular, has displayed that familiar combination of doggedness and touch that has made him a critical piece of the U.S. attack for so many years.
“The reality for me now is every game is an audition,” Donovan said. “I want to keep enjoying it. I’ll leave the evaluating to other people.”
He was referring to Klinsmann, who has justifiably made Donovan work his way back into the mix after stepping away from the game last year.
It is hard to imagine Donovan not making an impact next summer in Brazil. Holden’s future, on the other hand, is more difficult to predict. Unlike Chris Wondolowski, whose path to the top U.S. team seems blocked by established stars such as Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, Holden can force his way into the midfield mix with consistent success, especially in the knockout rounds of this tournament.
At 27, Holden has lost about three years of his career to a variety of sometimes freakish but always serious injuries.
While he was not as effective against Costa Rica as he was in the first two group games, there were flashes of what Holden can offer, and Klinsmann has made no secret of his investment in Holden’s success. He alternately noted that Holden is “a work in progress” but then added he can give the U.S. “a very, very valuable option in midfield.”
Holden knows the stakes.
“Every time I’m on the field,” he said, “I want to show Jurgen that I should be a 90-minute player for the team.”
World Cup qualifying may still be a few months away, but Donovan and Holden have their eyes fixed firmly on next summer.
For them, the games that truly matter have already begun. sunDAY: United States vs. El Salvador, 12:30 p.m., Ch. 13