An interesting tweet made the rounds last week, comparing the World Cup accomplishments of United States men’s national team star Landon Donovan to a number of world football superstars.
The tweet put Donovan’s World Cup statistics (5 goals in 12 games) next to those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who, combined, have nearly three times more World Cup matches (31), but less goals (3).
The past year has been an interesting one for Donovan, who began 2013 on a self-imposed sabbatical from the game and wasn’t even sure if he wanted to continue playing. But play he did, finishing the 2013 Major League Soccer season with a very respectable 10 goals and nine assists. Donovan also reasserted himself on the USMNT, leading the team to the 2013 Gold Cup and the squad’s seventh straight successful World Cup qualifying campaign.
Now, the 31-year-old is headed into what he admits is likely his last appearance on the world stage. With the U.S. national team facing the proverbial “group of death,” what can be expected out of the American legend this summer?
During Donovan’s absence from the team, the U.S. often found victories, but just as often found its offensive prowess anemic, at best. What seemed to be missing, however, was not Donovan’s American-record 57 goals, but instead, his American-record 57 assists.
In the past, the U.S. has relied a great deal on Donovan for his goal-scoring prowess. But lately, his greatest contribution to the team has been his playmaking. Gone is Donovan’s once blazing speed. What remains is arguably the most experienced, most technical and most tactically aware player in American history.
Donovan can still bring the goals, but his passing is what the team needs most. While their recent club form might suggest otherwise, the U.S. already has a number of strikers who can score if given proper service.
Donovan provides just that.
Surrounded by players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson and Eddie Johnson, what Donovan offers is the spark plug for the U.S. offense. Anyone who has watched Donovan play with his club teammate, Robbie Keane, over the past few years with the LA Galaxy can recognize Donovan’s extraordinary ability to find, provide and create space for himself and his teammates. Of the players head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to bring to Brazil, no one else on the U.S. roster offers that skill set.
The versatility of Donovan also gives Klinsmann a number of lineup options. While Donovan can play up top, his greatest value to the U.S. will come when he plays either out wide, or as the team’s attacking midfielder in Klinsmann’s preferred 4-2-3-1.
When deployed wide, with Graham Zusi roaming the other side, both Dempsey and either Altidore or Johannsson up top, will get opportunities to score, even against the U.S.’s intimidating World Cup group-stage opponents—Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
If deployed as the U.S.’s No. 10, Donovan will get an even greater opportunity to impact the game. Although this would create a question as to what to do with Clint Dempsey—who normally occupies the withdrawn forward position—Donovan’s presence in the middle of the field would help him direct the U.S.’s attack.
Dempsey is arguably the better pure finisher of the two, but Donovan’s passing, movement and vision are far superior.
However Klinsmann decides to utilize the American legend, Landon Donovan’s performance this summer in Brazil will be one of the most important factors dictating American success or lack thereof.
And as a playmaker, the U.S. could do a lot worse.
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