That Donovan has never before played so well and so hard for so long - not even at the 2002 World Cup, played shortly after his 20th birthday - can't be blamed on him, really, though his last two failures with German clubs do tend to cast some fault in his direction. He's a product of his environment, Major League Soccer, which can only push top players to certain points, after which greater pressure, intensity, risk, consequences, etc., are required.
When during a postgame press conference he expressed what a challenge and a thrill it would be play in Spain, should a club from that country come calling, it reminded me of what I wrote a few years back; that the technical, fast, demanding, stylish, flowing soccer played by most La Liga teams would suit him nicely. Along with his mastery of Spanish, it would seem to be, if not the ideal fit, a much better option than the more rigid, harsher labors of the German Bundesliga.
But what did impress me about Donovan was his commitment, his heart, his passion, his drive, which reminded me of what the American team often misses when another of its longtime veterans is absent. In the first two group games against Italy and Brazil, the USA still may have lost, but I seriously doubt if it would have looked as listless and lost had Frankie Hejduk been on the field, or even on the bench. He simply wouldn't have allowed it to happen.
Hejduk is who I was reminded of when Donovan drove into a tackle, or took off on a run, or scythed through challenges on the dribble, and when I saw Egypt play Italy and Brazil, or South Africa play Spain, or even New Zealand against Iraq. Every game, indeed every moment on the field, is sacred, and if you don't play as if everyone in your country is watching, you're in trouble, because nobody on the other team is holding anything back. Against talented opposition, you need a lot more than grunts and groans, yet had not the USA rocked Egypt back on its heels with pressure from the kickoff and fire and bite and an early goal, no way it gets a chance to stun top-ranked Spain in the semis.
The New Zealand players and coaches celebrated as if they'd won the competition after tying Iraq, 0-0, in its final group game. With no chance to advance, all the Kiwis wanted was something tangible to take home to soften the ignominy of a 5-0 pasting by Spain and 2-0 loss to South Africa. To their fans and their country, they owed their absolute best effort.
Unlike the Americans, the Kiwis can't count on coming back for the big show next year, so this was most likely their only showcase. Red cards and bad luck may have plagued the Americans in their first two games, and nobody accuses them of throwing in the towel, but aside from Donovan and a few others, there was more fizzle than fight.
There's a difference between playing hard and throwing heart and soul and family and country into every confrontation, and when the Americans raised their zeal to level 10 against Egypt and Spain and Brazil 2.0, nobody could fail to notice, and marvel at, the change.
The Americans, of course, don't rivet the nation's attention when they play, and those who toil in MLS aren't as well-equipped as their foreign-based counterparts to take on the world's best. Yet still Hejduk's energy and enthusiasm skew off the charts, and the U.S. coaches have to hold him back rather than wind him up.
At the Confederations Cup, Donovan showed that commitment and desire must well up from within regardless of external forces. Not every player can fly about the field like a Hejduk, or roar into crunching tackles like a Jay DeMerit, or buzz past defenders like Donovan, but for a team like the USA there can't be anything less than everything.
While coaching the U.S. hockey team that shocked the Soviet Union en route to its gold-medal triumph at the 1980 Olympic Games, along with many other bromides that have become legend, the late Herb Brooks told his team, "You haven't got enough talent to win on talent alone."
At times in the past, for club and country, Donovan did well enough by doing what he could. In South Africa, he did a lot more.