By Ridge Mahoney
There's been a bit of ballyhoo the past few days about Landon Donovan taking a big gamble by going to Everton on loan.
Uh, I beg to differ. Had he gone over with his MLS contract expired, as many players have done, that would be a gamble. And had he not signed a new deal and been entering the first of two option years, well, then maybe he could have said to be gambling somewhat, though by its very nature a loan deal is a test period, a trial run so all parties concerned can sample the experience, with a return to the status quo guaranteed.
As it is, with a new four-year contract tucked away at a salary of $2 million per year, and the fall-back of returning to MLS, can it be said he’s really gambling at all? Leaving the USA for Bayer Leverkusen at age 17, now that was a gamble, especially for Donovan, who spent much of his childhood without his father and jumped right into a new climate and culture, an environment that toughened and hardened him even if it has taken a few years for that steel to emerge.
Sometimes players, and people, need desperate conditions to survive and excel. If there’s no alternative, one choice only, the only chance is to make the best of it and scrap and fight and hope for good things to happen. But not everybody flourishes in those conditions; there are times when security can form a solid enough foundation that encourages optimum performance.
This is the case for Donovan, whose talent and skill has been vividly evident for the past decade. Eight years ago, while coaching Donovan in San Jose, Coach Frank Yallop – who played in England’s top flight as well as for Canada -- said, “I can see him in the Premier League. I really can.”
What Yallop also said a few years later was, “There were times when I had to sit Landon. He didn’t like it, but he understood it.” Those lessons learned, and his ability, are coming to the fore as he approaches his 28th birthday (in March) and nears the peak of his powers.
For Everton, Donovan is not the go-to guy as he so often is for the Galaxy and the US. national team. He’s playing a complementary role, working in a viable system devised by a sharp manager and operated by good players. While fans and journalists can rave, justifiably, about his corner kicks that lead to goals and passes that set up chances, and touches that create penalty kicks, coaches around England and Europe will note his simple touches to retain possession and positioning and movement off the ball, as well as the scything runs and well-hit set plays.
The Premier League may or may not be a good fit for his abilities, but more important is his performances fitting into a good team in a good league. Those elements can transcend borders, and so his options may not be limited to England after the World Cup.
If a mid-level Spanish team or one of the Premier League Big Four enter the bidding, Everton may have some hard decisions to make and some hard cash to cough up. Ironically, with each good game he plays, his price goes up, unless there’s a pre-negotiated transfer price written into the loan agreement, which isn’t likely.
His aborted attempts with Leverkusen (the second time around) and Bayern Munich are already fading with each solid game he turns in for the Toffees. The English press is starting to believe, and among the most strident critics of his previous forays into Europe have been the Brits, we should point out. One professional acquaintance of mine summed this loan up by saying, “Landon Donovan: About f****** time!”
Yet the time has to be right for the person involved, not imposed by any external influence.
Whether Donovan goes back to Everton or another foreign club after the World Cup or stays with the Galaxy, he’s taken this move at the right point in his life. The loan might still end badly, with an injury or a run of poor games, and to those of us who’ve seen him for the past 10 years he hasn’t proved anything about his talent or even his temperament that we didn't know. If Donovan puts his mind to something, it usually gets done, and done well if not brilliantly.
If he’s proved this to himself, not much else matters.