With the final round of USMNT World Cup qualifying off to a bad start, some fans (including supporter’s group The American Outlaws) have begun pointing toward the absence of Landon Donovan as the reason for the United States' struggles. The American Outlaws even took to Twitter to make an appeal to Donovan:
Some fans have even gone so far as to petition President Obama to personally contact Donovan and ask him to return to the team:
While the idea that the U.S. would struggle sans Donovan wouldn’t have been debated for most of the last decade, he’s clearly not the dominating player he was just a few years ago, and some fans have publicly declared they are happy he is moving on.
However, Donovan has been talisman of the USMNT for so many years that his absence, and a number of poor showings by the team without him, is beginning to prove what his worth to the team really was.
Reports this week have Donovan returning from his latest sabbatical to the LA Galaxy at the end of March, with Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena saying that he expects Donovan to be ready to play by the end of April.
That announcement means that Donovan will be unavailable for the United States' next World Cup qualifier on March 22 against Costa Rica.
Donovan has not appeared with the USMNT in six months and also took a nearly 10-month sabbatical from the team from September 2011 to May 2012.
In fact, over Jurgen Klinsmann’s last 20 games in charge of the USMNT, Donovan has only appeared six times.
So the inevitable question that arises is who, if anyone, can fill the Landon Donovan-sized hole in the USMNT squad?
In the immediate future, the pool of candidates is fairly small.
Josh Gatt seems the most obvious choice, but Gatt’s recent games with the USMNT have revealed that he still lacks the refinement necessary for the next level. There is no question that Gatt possesses Donovan-like speed (Donovan circa 2002), and Gatt seems to be a natural replacement for Donovan on the wing.
Some of Gatt’s uneven moments can also certainly be attributed to his youth at 21 years of age, but Landon Donovan was only 20 years old when he was a major contributor to the United State's memorable World Cup run in 2002.
Brek Shea seems like another obvious choice, albeit on the left wing instead of the right.
Shea’s recent move to Stoke City could finally help him move his game to the level many fans have been expecting since Shea’s breakout season with FC Dallas in 2011. Shea’s contributions with the USMNT have come in fits and starts, with his two most memorable moments being his game-tying and game-winning assists against Mexico in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
While those assists were big, game-changing moments, it also took Shea 12 games and seven starts to produce them. Another knock on Shea, of course, is that after his red-hot 2011 MLS campaign, he struggled mightily in 2012 and got into a public spat with FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman before being sold at the end of the season.
Mix Diskerud, unlike Brek Shea or Josh Gatt, could fill the No. 10 role that Donovan often played early in his career. While Diskerud is a much different player than Donovan, lacking Donovan’s athleticism, Diskerud has a level of creativity few in the USMNT pool possess.
In 105 minutes of playing time with the U.S., Diskerud has produced a game-winning assist and a game-tying goal. The knock on Diskerud is that Jurgen Klinsmann does not seem to rate him very highly, not even including Diskerud in the 18 for the recent friendly against Canada. Since then, rumors have surfaced that Diskerud is considering playing for Norway.
Joe Corona, like Diskerud, has a game based more on creativity than pure athleticism. So, like Diskerud, Corona would not produce the same bursting runs that Donovan has in the past.
However, Corona’s creativity could help the USMNT replace some of Donovan’s playmaking ability. Despite Donovan’s declining speed, he demonstrated with the Galaxy in 2012 that he is still a world-class playmaker.
Over the past year, Corona has become a regular starter for Liga MX champions Club Tijuana. The knock on Corona is that he has only been given one appearance by Klinsmann that did not come in stoppage time.
Is Donovan Replaceable?
While there are still some fans out there that don’t believe the USMNT needs Donovan, many are beginning to realize it may be a long time until the U.S. sees another player of Donovan’s quality, endurance and unique skill set. Josh Gatt, Brek Shea, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud may all be able to help the USMNT in the short-term and all may end up becoming elite USMNT players, but the fact of the matter remains that by the time Landon Donovan was their age, he was already a proven international player.
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