Moments to live for

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Landon Donovan speaks to the media before the team's July 5 game against Guatemala. (Binkowski)

Landon Donovan considered the question of milestones. Less than one hour after helping his teammates dispense with the team from Guatemala by scoring two of six goals, the 31-year-old man stood in the cement bowels of Qualcomm Stadium.

Fifty-one international goals. What does that mean?

Nearby conversations trampled over each other. Questions and responses bounced off steel and stone  before they were captured in reporters’ recorders.

Donovan is quiet. To hear him requires attention. One must lean in.

The goals were nice, he said. Pleasant moments. But at the end of his life he doubted they’d be recalled on his deathbed. So, for now, he would enjoy the moment.

Perhaps it is because he is in the beginning of his third decade that Donovan recognizes the proper place for athletic feats is next to perspective. Aging has a way of helping one sort through the pebbles.

Or maybe it was his time away from the game— absence from club and country that re-calibrated an internal compass that focuses on all things present. Since his return after a self-imposed three month separation, Donovan has been mindful of living the moment and enjoying the present.

For Donovan the joy of the day was playing again for the national team, something he hasn’t done since 2012. For the nearly 30,000 fans who watched his return their joy was made sweeter by the drubbing the Yanks handed the Central American country. They, no doubt, expect Donovan to be back on the squad that hopes to play in next year’s World Cup.

But Donovan manages his own expectations. He will be 32 then. And he accepts that his future hinges on his performance from game to game. The friendly against Guatemala was a first step in regaining his form and finding a rhythm he must share with other players who are looking for a way to Brazil.

Like the two goals he scored, the moments where his quick passes were unmet or an arcing cross veered off course were fleeting. So too were the bungled exchanges and the haphazard defending that occurred in the game’s first 25 minutes.

Those moments were some in a series of events linked together forming a path to this month’s Gold Cup with, perhaps, improved performance and—players hope—a call up to the World Cup qualifiers.

Playing, improving, winning and qualifying is a process.  One that Donovan says he’s enjoying.

As does Joe Corona. In starting the game, Chula Vista’s contribution to the national team said he savored the opportunity to play in front of friends, family and fans who typically follow his exploits with Tijuana’s Xolos.

Joe Corona, left, started for the U.S. Men's National Team July 5. (Binkowski)

Corona knows his road to Brazil is a long one. While he’s travelled with the team in World Cup qualifying, his playing time has been limited. His moments have been spent as an observer from the bench or as an occasional sub. But Friday the minutes he played were spent in an unrelenting pursuit not just of the ball but of a regular place in the starting line up.

To have watched midfielder, you wouldn’t know that Corona has spent  a grueling year playing futbol. First there was his team’s defense of its national title beginning in January; at the same there was the continent-hopping demanded by the Xolos’ pursuit of the Copa Libertadores trophy, and of course there was the United States attempting to qualify. And now the friendly. And the two-week long Gold Cup tournament. Followed by the beginning of the Xolos summer season at the end of this month. If Corona was worn down—physically or mentally—there was no indication of it when he played at home in Qualcomm.

Maybe that’s because Corona knows opportunities are fleeting, too. When the coach gives you the start you do what you can. And then you find a way to do what you can’t.  Despite playing only one half and not scoring, Corona made the most of his chance. He chased down Guatemalans as if they owed him money. And he delivered some passes with the accuracy of a hillbilly killing a squirrel.

Life is filled with moments. Some of them you will remember some of them you won’t. The key is making the most of them all, whether you’re a 31-year-old veteran scoring 51 international goals or a hometown kid starting for the red,white and blue.

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XOLOS!

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Fans gather inside the stadium waiting for kickoff.

 

 

In the stadium most everyone was seated. Marshaled in the south, a band of men and women stood with flags the same color as their black and red painted faces squinting into the sun.

Drummers descended first, punctuating each step down the concrete stairs in a unified rhythm. The trumpets followed and both vanguards spread out over the plastic seats no one would use.

Thousands chanted, propelling the flag bearers down and over the bleachers and heralding wave after wave of believers closer to the field.

“Xolos! Xolos! Xolos!”

Fidel Martinez heard them. Saw them. Felt them. The Ecuadorian forward relentlessly pursued the ball and forced his will onto the men of Leon. If his runs were occasionally aimless or his passes misdirected, he was no less determined to carry the Xolos onto victory.

"Xolos! Xolos! Xolos!"

That moment arrived when Duvier Riascos —the forward whose dazzling step-overs and genteel pirouettes with the ball were stifled by vindictive opponents—drew a defender and casually back heeled a pass to Martinez. With one left-footed touch, the 22-year-old blasted the ball into the right side of the net and hoisted the hopes of 23,000 people onto his shoulders.

But it was Riascos’s score in the second half that pushed the assembled crowd to the brink of euphoria and Richard Ruiz’s clinching goal near the end that unleashed the screams and shouts of ecstasy. The Xolos had won. They had earned the right to play in the final. They had lifted Tijuana and carried it through.

The flags waved through the night.

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