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