Throughout his career, both with the United States men’s national team and his varied clubs over the years, Landon Donovan has been used in a variety of positions. According to What a Howler, Bruce Arena, former USMNT coach and Donovan’s current coach with the LA Galaxy, once said, “The problem with Landon is that he’s your best player at so many positions that you never know where to put him.”
Early in his career, Donovan was often deployed as a withdrawn striker, responsible for linking up the play between the midfield and his forward partner, usually Brian McBride.
Later, in the Bob Bradley era, while on loan to Everton in 2010 and 2012 and most recently with the LA Galaxy, Donovan has been used as a wide midfielder. These roles as a wide midfielder have varied, however. With the USMNT in Bradley’s 4-2-2-2, both Donovan and Clint Dempsey, playing in “wide” roles, were often asked to cut inside to help account for the large gaps between the two holding midfielders and the forwards.
With current head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s use of the 4-2-3-1 in recent months, everyone assumed that Donovan’s role, if and when he were to return to the USMNT after his offseason sabbatical, would be as one of the wide midfielders. While a host of players including Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez, Fabian Johnson and even Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones have played wide for Klinsmann, creativity and consistent service from the wing had been lacking prior to this summer’s June World Cup qualifiers.
The spark that was needed for the U.S., according to many, was Donovan out wide.
However, when Donovan returned to the U.S. squad this summer, in the Gold Cup, he was used as both a striker and a withdrawn forward, not wide. Part of this was due to the absence of Clint Dempsey, who had manned the No. 10 role for the “A” team in June. Part of it was due to the glut of wingers and dearth of top-class forwards on the Gold Cup roster. It simply made more sense to use Donovan in a more advanced and central position while Joe Corona, Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Torres and Brek Shea split the duties on the wing.
Playing up top (or as the withdrawn striker) during the Gold Cup, Donovan showed U.S. fans, and hopefully Klinsmann, what the team had been missing in Donovan’s absence. He scored five goals in the tournament and notched seven assists (not counting “hockey assists” of which he had a couple as well). Officially, Donovan was a part of 60 percent of the United States' offense during the tournament, albeit mostly against CONCACAF minnows and “B” teams. He also won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
So now the question is, where is Donovan best deployed once the full “A” team is assembled again?
The discussion about where to play Donovan, however, cannot occur in a vacuum because if Donovan is to be used as the center attacking mid/withdrawn forward in Klinsmann’s 4-2-3-1, Clint Dempsey would need to be moved. As both players are clearly the United States' best goal scorers and both are extremely versatile in their capabilities, it may be a largely unsolvable debate.
On the one hand, Dempsey is the ultimate poacher, always finding space in front of goal and having the technical proficiency to finish the vast majority of his chances. On the other hand, he is not a true No. 9 who can lead the line. He is best when ghosting into the box late, often unmarked. As the United States' best pure goal scorer, conventional wisdom would say that he must play as centrally as possible.
However, Dempsey is also not a pure setup man in the No. 10 role. And, as good as he is as a finisher, Donovan is clearly the better passer and playmaker. Although Donovan lacks Dempsey’s size and has the potential to get knocked around more in the middle, Donovan would do more for the U.S. setting up his teammates than Dempsey would in the central role.
Donovan playing centrally would also force Dempsey wide. Certainly Dempsey can play the wide role and do it well, as he has for the U.S. and Fulham in the past. But, Dempsey does not have the speed typical of most wingers and playing wide moves him farther from the goal.
Honestly, the fact that both men are in top form only one year from the World Cup is a blessing for the U.S., no matter where they are playing. Coming out of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, there were serious doubts about whether the two would still be part of the national team setup in 2014. One year out, even though the pair will be 32 (Donovan) and 31 (Dempsey), they are both good bets to be wearing the red, white and blue in Brazil.
If Klinsmann opts to keep the 4-2-3-1, as he should, and plays either Donovan or Dempsey in the No. 10 role, the U.S. should be successful regardless of who plays centrally. Both players have great soccer minds and it will be much easier for them to connect with each other with one central and one wide than it was under Bob Bradley’s 4-2-2-2 when they started games on opposite sides of the field. Even when Bradley began to experiment with the 4-2-3-1 in the 2011 Gold Cup, Sacha Kljestan was often used as the attacking midfielder with Donovan and Dempsey split apart from each other on the wings.
Anyone who has watched Donovan’s play with the LA Galaxy over the past two years has seen how well Donovan (playing as a wing) connects with Robbie Keane (playing as a forward). Surely, with the USMNT, Donovan would be able to do the same from out wide with a centrally playing Dempsey. Likewise, if Donovan were played centrally, he would find Dempsey in the wide positions and give him plenty of chances to impact the game.
It truly is the definition of a win-win proposition for Klinsmann, the USMNT and their fans.
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