Last weekend, Landon Donovan finally returned from his four-month, self-imposed sabbatical from soccer and rejoined the L.A. Galaxy.
Despite the long layoff and only a couple of days of training with the team, Donovan played straight away in the Galaxy’s 2-2 away draw to Toronto FC, coming into the match as a 61st-minute substitute.
Several days earlier, as he began training with the Galaxy, Donovan said that his goal is to return to playing for the United States men’s national team.
I realize I have a long way to go both on the field and off the field to work my way back into the national team, and that's my goal. If that's something that presents itself, then that's something I want to do. I miss being a part of that and I want to represent my country again.
So, assuming that Donovan does return to the USMNT, what does that mean for the U.S.?
During Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure as head coach of the U.S., Donovan has taken two extended breaks from international duty, the first coming from September 2011–May 2012 and the second starting in September 2012 and continuing to the present.
Donovan has missed some USMNT camps due to injuries, such as the knee contusion he suffered last fall, and some due to his more recent break from the game altogether.
In many of the games that Donovan has missed, there has been a genuine lack of flair in the U.S. attack and the team has generated few good goal-scoring chances. For example, in the U.S.’ three World Cup qualifying games in the Hexagonal, the team has only managed three shots on goal.
While Donovan no longer possesses the world-class speed that once made him an extremely dangerous striker, he still possesses the play-making ability that the U.S. squad currently lacks in the midfield.
Many critics of Donovan are quick to point out that a lot of his all-time national team record 49 goals have come from the penalty spot, but what they fail to mention is that Donovan also holds the all-time national team record in assists—at 48—and is the team’s best playmaker.
For anyone who has watched Donovan over the past two years in the MLS playoffs, they have seen how effectively Donovan, playing on the wing for the Galaxy, has connected with Galaxy forward Robbie Keane to shred opposing defenses (For the record, Donovan has 108 assists in his MLS career).
The reason that Donovan and Keane are so effective when paired together is that they both have the high level of tactical understanding of space and movement that is required to break down an opposing defense and the technical skill to execute it. This is something sorely lacking among USMNT players but something U.S. fans can remember happening for the USMNT when Donovan would get connected with Clint Dempsey.
The fact is, while Donovan may no longer be a top option for the USMNT as a forward as he was when he was younger, he is still one of the team’s best options playing on the wing—one of the positions the U.S. is currently lacking depth.
The U.S. options at the wide position currently include a cadre of players—none of whom can do for the U.S. what Donovan can.
Graham Zusi, who played very well against Mexico, and Brad Davis, who has been enjoying stellar form for the Houston Dynamo, are not as dynamic as Donovan.
Eddie Johnson has showed promise on the wing but has been used most recently by Klinsmann, ineffectively, as a forward.
Brek Shea and Josh Gatt have yet to consistently deliver on their promising talent for either club or country.
Alejandro Bedoya, while in good form in Sweden, has only received one call-up in the Klinsmann era.
Finally, Sacha Kljestan, Danny Williams, Jermaine Jones, Jose Torres and Herculez Gomez, all used on the wing by Klinsmann at various times, are all not true wide players.
Donovan is the only player the U.S. currently has that can provide possession, goal scoring, service, 1 vs. 1 ability and combination play on the wing. While he is no longer the Donovan of 2010, he is still the best option the U.S. has.
With seven games remaining in World Cup qualifying, the U.S. would benefit from his return to the team.
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