Fifty-Fifty? Was he just having a down day or was that a serious, thoughtful assessment?
In a recent interview that caused quite a stir among followers of the U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT), Landon Donovan said he thought odds were even that he would still be on the team for the Brazil World Cup, now less than two years down the road.
Even odds, when many are or at least were looking for Donovan to carry the torch through one more World Cup campaign, are not what American advocates of true football want to hear. Not now, coming off a surprisingly difficult qualification round.
The comment motivated a slurry of speculation about Donovan’s age, desire and lasting effects from recently experienced injuries.
This isn’t another of those articles. Instead, this is the cup-half-full equivalent. This is a walk down memory lane—a look at Donovan’s 10 best moments with the USMNT, at least through my subjective eyes (and maybe a small reminder of why others are so quick to react with all those cup-half-empty analyses).
When Mexico visited the Los Angeles Coliseum for a friendly against the Americans, they had no idea they were about to see the inaugural goal of the Donovan era.
The then just 18-year-old Donovan was fresh off a successful stint on the youth side, having won the Golden Ball at the U-17 World Cup. However, Donovan was relatively unknown among senior team observers before the game against Mexico.
There, he cut through Mexican defenders to pick up a through ball in the attacking third, touched quickly past the sprawling keeper and touched into the net for his first senior international goal. It was the first of two U.S. goals in what was then a somewhat rare win over the CONCACAF powerhouse.
The USMNT was not expected to accomplish much in the 2002 World Cup. After three qualifying games, including a surprising defeat of Portugal, the Americans advanced. Success! The South Korea and Japan iteration of the tournament already had been a good one.
On to the knockout games, with a match against old, familiar nemesis Mexico. "Mexico? We can beat these guys,” many American fans were thinking.
2002 may be the year to date (discounting 1930) when the USMNT put forward its most competitive World Cup squad. It also was the year the Americans won a knockout game. Up by a goal and looking for insurance, Donovan found himself under an Eddie Lewis cross and provided the header.
Coming off that win, Donovan and his American teammates went on to play Germany in the quarterfinals. Germany beat the USMNT on its road to the finals, but Coach Franz Beckenbauer flatly said the Americans outplayed his team, and the Germans were lucky to advance.
Donovan was a huge part of that run, and was named FIFA World Cup Best Young Player.
In Foxborough, MA, Donovan personally lit up the Cubans in a Gold Cup quarterfinals match, finding the net four times in a dominating 5-0 USMNT win.
Donovan got his first at 22 minutes in, and added a second only three minutes later. With that, the rout was on. Donovan added two more in the second half, for a hat trick, plus one.
This Gold Cup included South American guest invitees Brazil and Colombia. Brazil defeated the USMNT in extra time of the semifinals. Donovan was named as one of three forwards to the tournament’s Best XI, joining lofty company with Mexico’s Jesus Arellano (also named Gold Cup most valuable player) and Brazil’s Kaka.
In a friendly against Guatemala played in Frisco, TX, Donovan set up national teammate Ben Olsen for a goal, and in doing so broke Cobi Jones’ USMNT assist record. It was Donovan’s 23rd assist.
He would go on to record another 25 and counting.
This is picked as an iconic moment for Donovan with the national side, even over his second international hat trick the following year or when surpassing Eric Wynalda’s scoring mark, because assists speak to field vision and creativity.
Arguably more so than his extraordinary scoring tally, Donovan’s ability to create scoring opportunities is a dynamic asset to the USMNT cause. Other national sides, including elite ones like current day Spain, recognize Donovan with the ball in space as one of the few truly threatening aspects the Americans bring to the field.
In the 74th minute of the Confederations Cup semifinals in South Africa, already leading by an improbable goal against global powerhouse and top-ranked Spain, Donovan found the ball in space on an American counter.
As with all sports career achievements, luck plays its role. Or maybe great players find ways to create luck. That is a discussion with endless enjoyable tangents but no final destination.
Donovan played a short diagonal for Clint Dempsey. The pass did reach Dempsey after "pinballing" off two scrambling Spanish defenders. Dempsey was able to one-touch it past Iker Casillas. That 2-0 score stood, and propelled the Americans into the finals against Brazil.
This game is still considered by many to be the greatest USMNT achievement to date. It was a win against the top national team in the world, in a game that modestly mattered. While the Confederations Cup certainly does not equate to the World Cup, it is hardware. And for the Spanish, the game also meant an end to their record-tying 35-game undefeated streak (shared with Brazil) and record-setting 15 game win streak.
In the 26th minute of the Confederations Cup finals in South Africa, already leading by an improbable goal (am I repeating myself?) against perennial global power Brazil, Donovan and Charlie Davies combined for a picture perfect counter.
Winning possession in their defensive third, the Americans looked up field. Donovan, with his usual sense of anticipation, was breaking down the center. A pass straight up field put the Brazilians under dire threat, because Donovan had the ball in space, with a supporting Charlie Davies keeping pace to his left.
Donovan played over to Davies, who one-touched it past both retreating Brazilian defenders. Donovan, reacting to the last Brazilian field player’s momentum, touched to space on the inside. He then buried a left-footed strike to give the USMNT a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, the moment of glory and two-goal lead was not enough to survive the next 64 minutes. The Brazilians came back with three goals in the second half.
Coming off the tie with England in their first group game of the World Cup finals, the Americans felt pretty good about their chances of advancing. Then they ran into the Slovenians. Slovenia, a team that had demonstrated great defense in qualifiers to reach South Africa, but not much attack power, opened a 2-0 lead on the USMNT.
Trailing and desperate, Donovan pushed a ball past a defender and toward the corner. Finding more space than perhaps he had expected, especially against a strong defense like Slovenia possessed, he angled in toward goal. But no one presumably from either team expected what happened next.
Donovan’s hard angle had American teammates struggling to position themselves to receive the cross and Slovenians fighting to clog that space. Donovan slowed for a step. His eyes flashed across the box. Then with a burst he pushed another couple steps toward goal and fired a difficult angled but point blank shot toward the keeper—who literally seemed to only half swipe at the rocket and half duck out of the way.
The ball struck the top of the net from inside the goal. The re-energized USMNT would go on to find a much needed equalizer for a 2-2 final.
Donovan’s stoppage time goal against World Cup opponent Algeria put the Americans through to the knockout round, secured first in a group that included the English (were those throwback jerseys with their odd sash pattern prophetic?) and sealed Donovan’s status as the most opportune USMNT player to date.
Running on the counterattack, with the game scoreless and the U.S. needing a win, Donovan played a perfect diagonal into the box. A quick Altidore centering pass and Dempsey stuff by the Algerian keeper later, the ball was lying oddly still and dangerously beyond that keeper’s reach.
From the perspective of a television camera, it was a long, still, breathless moment.
Out of the camera’s view, Donovan had not stopped running in support of the attack. He beat the lunging keeper to the ball and slotted it home.
How big was that goal? In a tight Group C, the obvious impact was score it and win the group but fail and go home. However, for the American development of the game, it was bigger.
My personal experience was watching it in the break room at the office. The room was filled to capacity with co-workers asking questions about the very nature of stoppage time (foreign to the games they more typically see). When Donovan scored, an emotional eruption of ear-shattering cheers ended any pretense of work place demeanor. For a brief moment, everyone there lived and died (in that moment, lived) with the USMNT.
I can only guess that scene was played out at offices across the nation.
Mexico came into the Gold Cup finals full of confidence, for good reason. This was a very good Mexican side. Some were saying it might be the beginning of a run for the best Mexican team ever, and still think so today.
The Americans looked shaky at times while advancing to the cup finals. But from the opening minutes, the USMNT controlled the field and created scoring opportunities. After an initial goal off a Michael Bradley header, the Americans kept up the pressure on Mexico.
Donovan moved dangerously off the ball in the 23rd minute. Solid passing by the USMNT kept the Mexican side off balance and set up a short through ball to Donovan slanting across the Mexican goal. Donovan played the ball with a first touch that took it beyond the keeper’s set. Then he finished with an easy left foot, and the USMNT was up 2-0.
Much like the Confederations Cup finals two years before, the lead would not hold. A relentless Mexican attack took control and by the end of 90 minutes scored four times.
The USMNT hosted Scotland for a friendly this past May. The Scots left EverBank Field in Jacksonville, FL, thinking there was nothing friendly about this one. The Americans tagged their opponents for five goals. It was the most ever by a U.S. team over a UEFA opponent.
(Actually, the Americans scored six times, but one was on their own goal).
Donovan recorded his third international hat trick, including the ice breaker for this match in the third minute, and later the third and fourth of the growing USMNT tally.
For the Los Angeles Galaxy star, 2012 has been a year dominated by injuries. Prior to this game, he had not played with the national team for eight months. "Now we have Landon back and he gave us the goals," Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in a post-game interview.
The three strikes were Donovan’s 47th, 48th and 49th of his international career. Each set a new USMNT scoring record, which still stands at 49 this fall… but hopefully not much longer.