It’s been a crazy couple of weeks for USMNT fans in regards to Landon Donovan.
First, only days before two do-or-die U.S. World Cup qualifiers in mid-October, Donovan injured his knee while on duty with the LA Galaxy. In spite of early hopes that he would recover in time to play, he was quickly sent home, after being examined by the USMNT’s medical staff.
Then, just one week ago, in an interview on October 23, Donovan told ESPN that it’s “50-50” that he will play in the 2014 World Cup.
This announcement followed a similar interview he gave to Sports Illustrated in May, right before World Cup qualifying began, in which Donovan admitted he was losing his hunger for the game.
The May announcement led some fans to question his commitment, which is understandable as an initial reaction, but with even a few minutes of reflection, is completely unfair.
Donovan has been the face of American soccer, Major League Soccer and the United States Men’s National Team since he was a teenager. How anyone that age deals with that much pressure is a mystery, but the amazing thing about Donovan is how he has largely stayed away from controversy his entire career, despite that pressure.
Among so many other young stars, there are the bar fights, the arrests, the inappropriate comments in the media—or nowadays inappropriate tweets. Sure, Donovan has had his moments—urinating on the field at Estadio Jalisco, bleaching his hair blond (yes, it looked terrible), ripping off his jersey in Brandi Chastain fashion at the MLS All-Star game to reveal he was wearing a sports bra—but they have been minor and rare.
As the face of American soccer, Donovan is always expected to make time for the media, for promotional events, for charities and, oh yeah, put forth a world-class effort every time he steps on the pitch for club or country. And every time his team doesn’t win, whether it is the LA Galaxy or the USMNT, his performance is the first to be criticized.
His travel schedule has been enough to knock a step out of anyone, from MLS game to MLS game (in a nation with much longer flights and more time changes than any European league), to nearly every national team game, whether it is an important game, or just a friendly, to his winter-loan stints with Everton.
And that travel means nothing compared to the physical exhaustion of playing nearly 300 club games over the last 10 years, plus over 100 games with the U.S. national team over that same time span.
Add that to the fact that Donovan almost always plays 90 minutes, and because he has been the most important player for both his club team and for the USMNT for the vast majority of that time, he is also expected to play through most injuries.
In his interview with ESPN, he alluded to that physical and mental toll saying, “I feel like there is a physical point which you hit when your body can't take it like it used to, but there is also a mental place where your mind can't do it anymore.”
After this most recent interview, the Twitter world and Internet message boards lit up with all sorts of nonsensical comments about how Donovan was no longer needed, or even wanted in the USMNT set-up.
But, how many of the those fans were so brazen when they learned Donovan was not going to be available for the October qualifiers?
What is Landon Donovan's role with the USMNT?
The fact is, there are several important reasons the U.S. still needs Donovan.
Sure, the U.S. without Donovan would still have Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. But after that, who else is a world-class player?
The short answer is: no one.
Is there talent on the U.S. team beyond Donovan? Yes.
Are any of those players as good as Donovan, even on one of Donovan’s off-days? No.
Graham Zusi has looked very solid in the last three games for the USMNT, and Eddie Johnson has seen a resurgence this year, but neither of them has the total set of skills in shooting, passing and dribbling that Donovan has. And both still have a long way to go to prove they can play against top-notch international competition, something Donovan has proved time after time after time.
And after Zusi and Johnson, who does the U.S. have on the wing?
There’s Alejandro Bedoya—who has not seen a single call-up in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. There’s Joe Corona—who receives a lot of USMNT call-ups, but has almost never seen the field.
There’s Brek Shea—who despite boatloads of potential and two nice runs against Mexico has shown little other than his immaturity.
There’s Jose Torres and Sacha Kljestan—who both struggle when played out of position on the wing.
There’s Josh Gatt—who has not played a single minute yet for the USMNT, or proved that he’s a capable international.
And there’s Danny Williams, who despite looking like a solid defensive midfielder, looks lost when playing wide.
The U.S. still has ten games to go just to qualify for the World Cup. And that includes two tough matches against Mexico, two games each against resurgent Costa Rica and Panama, two games against the always-tough Honduras and another away match in Jamaica.
Does anyone really believe that the U.S. is better off in qualifying without a world-class player like Donovan on the roster?
And what if the U.S. hits a bad patch of injuries, or Clint Dempsey, who is rarely hurt, goes down? On a U.S. roster void of Dempsey, who are the rest of the players going to look to when the game is on the line and the U.S. needs a goal?
Donovan has proved, again, time after time, that when the U.S. needs him, when the game is on the line, he will come through.
Surely Donovan has lost a step. Any casual observer of his play would notice that. However, while many players who excel in their careers due to their pace fade when that pace is no longer there, Donovan has still continued to be a dominant player.
His experience helps him pick and choose his moments much better than when he was young. His incredible fitness helps him continue to run hard—albeit not as fast as in the past—for 90 minutes.
But perhaps the most underrated aspect of Donovan’s game, perhaps because he is so associated with being the pacey forward of his youth, is Donovan’s passing ability.
Check out the attached clip at the 3:06 mark of a Donovan pass from Sunday’s LA Galaxy-Seattle Sounders match, and just listen to the commentary of Taylor Twellman during the replay. Or, check out this pass from last summer’s Gold Cup.
The last reason the U.S. still needs Landon Donovan is because he is still the unquestioned leader of the team. Yes, Carlos Bocanegra is the captain, and a good one. Yes, Clint Dempsey is now the main goalscorer, but he is generally a more quiet, reserved player. Yes, Tim Howard is a leader of the defense. And yes, Michael Bradley is beginning to emerge as the leader of the midfield.
But the fact of the matter is, the moment Landon Donovan steps on the field with that group, he is the one everyone will be looking to win the game.
And with some pretty big games coming up for Team USA in World Cup qualifying, the USMNT will be better off with Landon Donovan on the team.
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