Sunday 13 September ~

The United States laboured on towards World Cup qualification this past week with narrow wins over El Salvador (2-1 at home) and Trinidad & Tobago (1-0 away). The assists for all three goals were provided by the LA Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan, to no one’s surprise. Donovan holds the country’s all-time record for assists, for goals scored (41) and has won 118 caps even though he is still only 27. There’s not much to dislike about Donovan as a player.

He rarely suffers from injuries, he’s consistent, he’s fast, he’s exciting to watch and he can operate as either a playmaker behind a two-man frontline or to great effect from wide positions. He is the outstanding US player of his generation and arguably of all time. The mystery is that he is not being courted by more European teams. Spanish players expressed their admiration for Donovan after the US beat Spain at this summer’s Confederations Cup, when he excelled in leading his team’s counter-attacks. Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola also singled out Donovan for praise after an exhibition game in LA last month. Donovan has consistently been the nemesis of Concacaf foes Mexico down the years and has always played as strongly in Major League Soccer as he has at international level. And yet even among US soccer fans he has his share of detractors. They point to his poor play at the 2006 World Cup (where, by his own admission, Donovan wasn’t mentally present) and three “failed stints” in Europe.

The latter don’t bear much scrutiny. His first spell, at Bayer Leverkusen, was as an unhappy, unsettled teenager. After being loaned to San Jose in MLS for three years, he returned to Leverkusen briefly but was given only two starts before being sold back west, to LA. Donovan freely admitted that he missed his family and fiance and that he preferred the Californian sand and surf to German winters. But earlier this year another loan deal to Germany, to Bayern Munich, also failed to pan out. Donovan impressed in winter friendlies for Bayern, but couldn’t establish himself in the few first-team opportunities he was given in the Bundesliga with Jürgen Klinsmann’s dysfunctional divas.

Donovan is an articulate, intelligent young man who is honest enough to accept some or even all of the blame for these aborted ventures to a higher club level. But now that his marriage has broken down and he is at the peak of his abilities, it seems incredible that no European club moved in for him before the summer transfer window closed (although MLS, which owns players’ rights, may have deflected any initial queries with a high asking price). Still, here we have a player who finds the rare amount of space available in the modern game and ruthlessly exploits it to make or take goals. It’s hard to believe there’s not a team in Spain, Italy or England who could allow him the time to adapt to the pace of Europe’s top leagues and become a crowd-pleasing contributor over the next three to four years.

Next summer’s World Cup will be Donovan’s third and if he plays as well in South Africa as he did at the Confederations Cup he will finally quash the perception that he goes missing when it really matters. At international level there’s little reason to think that he won’t keep playing until his mid-30s and effortlessly amass 200 caps. It would be a shame for such a distinguished performer to have nothing more to boast about at club level than a handful of MLS championship medals. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (7)
Comment by Firesox 2009-09-13 14:14:14

Greatest American player ever.

Comment by dylan 2009-09-13 15:49:54

He really is such a quality player. It's a shame MLS is holding him for ransom. However, I also suspect LD is very much sensitive to his surroundings, his securities - everyone has seen his hand ritual when starting a match or taking a pk - and will need the time to adjust to change that he hasn't yet received on his forays to Europe.

Comment by danielmak 2009-09-14 05:39:18

The stats clearly speak to his qualities, but I also think that those stats are padded by CONCACAF qualifiers and CONCACAF Gold Cup games. Now I understand that one can only do one's best against the opponents that exist, but his inability to shine in Europe (even this last time when he was on loan to Bayern) and his failure to truly lead the team in the WC, means that he will never be viewed as world class outside the US. In his defence, Bruce Arena's failure to sit Reina in WC 2006 seemed to hinder Dononvan, who needed to be the midfield general; however, since that time, he just seems to go missing for far too long. The great midfielders (and he is really a midfielder, not a forward) get the ball; they will not stand for drifting out of the game. So, what am I saying here? He has been a very good player for the US and in MLS, and I think we play so much better when he plays well, but he is just not world class and until the US has some truly world class attacking players, we will never truly shine against top sides in competitions that really matter (e.g., the World Cup).

Comment by MaxJ 2009-09-14 09:49:32

Consistency is fairly recent feature in Donovan's game. It's only since perhaps 2008, when he scored 20 goals, and maybe later that he's shed a lot of his reputation as a gutless wonder. Between that MLS' usual restrictive shenanigans in the transfer market, it's not really surprising that he hasn't gone anywhere. The problem is that he really has to be sold to a team that's willing to meet what is absolutely going to be high transfer fee, which a) no one probably feels he's worth and b) is not in line with the playing time he might be afforded at a large club with deep pockets.

Comment by Cal Alamein 2009-09-14 13:11:38

He gets a hell of a lot of stick in the U.S., but in general he is by far the most consistent player in the U.S. side. He seemed to be totally awed and intimidated during the 2006 World Cup performance - as did his teammates. Physically and mentally he was out of it.

His best chance to star overseas would be if he was a role player surrounded by quality talent. That seemed to be the situation w/ B. Munich, but it didn't work.

Wish we had more players w/ his work ethic and skill. Probably best to keep him the U.S. where he is playing regularly.

Comment by mab 2009-09-14 13:28:24

He admitted to having a poor WC 06, and people seem to use that as evidence of inconsistency. But the truth was the whole side was mediocre in that Cup. If you actually look back at the guy's performances internationally and domestically, he's actually been incredibly consistent, 06 notwithstanding. I never understood the amount of criticism and, in some cases, out and out hate for the guy. I think there's little doubt he's now proven to be the best field player the US has produced to date. And we should all pray he stays healthy for '10--we have very little offer without him.

Comment by radmonkey 2009-09-15 04:46:51

I disagree with the notion that Donovan isn't world-class, he is.......he just isn't a world-class playmaker, which is the role that he keeps being saddled with for the US team. But he is a world-class wide player, he could play for a lot of very good teams in Europe.....but it never really worked out for him, but I don't think it was a lack of physical skills in his case but commitment.
A lot of people think landon gave up too easily when it came to his first two stints in Germany. He basically came back with his tail between his legs at the first sign of adversity, at least that was the consensus.
I think that's partly of result of American soccer still being a middle-class pursuit.
If he was a player from more modest means and who had the pressure of his family depending on hi, I think he wouldn't succumbed to homesickness so easily. Not that I blame him for wanting to be a big fish in a small pond in southern california and marrying an actress, but a lot of other people seemed to.

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