Landon Donovan and the Search for the Next Team USA Torchbearer

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Landon Donovan and the Search for the Next Team USA Torchbearer
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To fully emerge as a world footballing nation—and fellow Americans, we need to make some effort to call the game what the rest of the world does—requires monastic patience and a whole lot of ibuprofen for the growing pains.

This week, Roger Bennett of ESPN produced a candid Q&A with Landon Donovan—food for thought for Sam's Army and all overzealous sports idolaters alike.

Rather than rehash Bennett's excellent piece, we've chosen to look ahead to life without Landon, the oft-reluctant face of a once painfully-unpopular sport in the U.S.A.

As "soccer" moves into a new era of acceptance and near-religious fervor in the States, will a new talisman surface and propel the US Men's National Team to greater heights?

Is it even fair to expect a solitary hero to take on this burden all by himself?

Our own John D. Halloran took on this subject last winter, but this was prior to Donovan's telling interview. Also, here we're more concerned with investigating the need for Donovan's heir apparent than actually discovering the best candidate to fill his shoes.

A scan of Jürgen Klinsmann's selections for the most-recent 2014 World Cup Qualifiers reveals many tried-and-true performers, including: Clint Dempsey (29, Tottenham), Michael Bradley (25, AS Roma) and veteran keeper, Tim Howard (33, Everton).

These players are part of the generation that accomplished mixed results at the last two World Cups.

There is also a measure of quality on the U.S.'s U23 roster—the disappointing team that failed to qualify for the Olympics. Players like Juan Agudelo (19, Chivas USA), Brek Shea (22, FC Dallas) and Terrence Boyd (21, Rapid Wien) have made contributions to their club sides and the senior national squad.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Juan Agudelo

 

 

There are others that have been anointed as the next Donovan. Freddy Adu (23, Philadelphia Union) surely, Jozy Altidore (22, AZ Alkmaar), and throw in Stuart Holden (27, Bolton) for good measure.

Donovan arguably became the face of U.S. Soccer in 2002 after scoring two goals in the team's surprising run to the quarterfinals at the Japan/South Korea World Cup. At age 20, Donovan took home the Best Young Player distinction and all the weighty expectations of a country bent on global sporting dominance.

After 144 caps and 49 goals (most in USMNT history), Donovan (Sporting News, Brian Straus) is no longer certain he can be the showpiece of the team.

It is a supreme challenge to pick out the next twenty-something with the quality and character to lead the U.S. beyond the 2014 World Cup. As for Brazil, Donovan will be 32, Dempsey 31 and Bradley 27.

A glance at the U.S.'s U20 player pool demonstrates a number of players in good European academies/systems, but even the most tenured scout would be hard-pressed making a shortlist for the next U.S. Soccer poster child.

The need to push a superstar is not purely an American phenomenon. England has Beckham, Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo and Argentina has Messi. The argument could be made that Donovan is no less a once-in-a-generation player for his country than these players.

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Perhaps it is this hangup on the superman principle that prevents some teams from hoisting trophies on the international level in today's game.

If we look at the most successful international sides at the moment, we see a team game orchestrated by talent at every position. Spain is the clear model here, and while players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta are singular, they can find quality teammates within every channel on the pitch.

Germany and Brazil also currently have this sort of culture; one player does not have to carry the team athletically and be the marketing focal point.

Consider the World Cup records of Beckham's England (only title, 1966), Messi's Argentina (last title, 1986—granted, there was that whole Maradona phenomenon) and CR7's Portugal (third, 1966).

Furthermore, neither Spain (2010) nor Italy (2006)—the winners of the last two World Cups—relied so heavily on one player.

The USMNT has never had a player the caliber of a Beckenbauer, Pelé or Cruyff, but Donovan has been expected to mirror these players' accomplishments simply because he was dubbed The Chosen One.

Perhaps Klinsmann is crafting more of a team concept in anticipation of Donovan's 50/50 playing scenario for 2014.

Only eight countries can boast of a World Cup title over its 19 editions. If the U.S. wish to add their name to the list some day, they will need more than one Landon Donovan—or next big thing—to do the deed.

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