By Ridge Mahoney
Since his latest proclamation that he needs an extended break from soccer, the collective mood of fans and observers regarding Landon Donovan has shifted from, “Will he come back?” to “When will he come back?”
Let the guessing continue. Nothing is guaranteed, and while it’s hard to fathom he’d extend his walkabout into the regular season, he could be unavailable for the first three Hexagonal qualifiers, including a late March double-dip with Costa Rica and Mexico. Regardless of when his body and competitive juices compel him to return, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann must move on.
Klinsmann sent out eight lineups without him last year and in addition to the six listed below, at some point in 2013 could recall Benny Feilhaber to play on this side of midfield and perhaps even a healthy Stuart Holden. The continued absence of Donovan could prompt further tinkering by Klinsmann, which could shift these players to other slots.
These rankings, which will be updated later this year, are based on national team performances, future prospects and other factors.
SA's Top 6 U.S. Right Midfielders
1. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy), 144 caps.
2. Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City), 6.
3. Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), 38.
4. Josh Gatt (Molde), 1.
5. Eddie Gaven (Columbus Crew), 8 caps.
6. Nick DeLeon (D.C. United), 0.
Donovan played only six games for the USA last year and after sitting out the 1-0 defeat of Italy in February, came back three months later to hit all three of his 2012 goals in a 5-1 pasting of Scotland. That his influence waned from past seasons can’t be argued but it’s not unusual for a player who’s logged as many minutes as Donovan to go off form during the “tweener” years midway between World Cups.
Debate will rage over whether Clint Dempsey or Donovan is the USA’s go-to guy; the stark fact of the matter is the national team isn’t strong enough to do without either of them for any length of time. Yet even if Donovan girds up his psyche enough to gut out the next 18 months and play in Brazil, he’s been put on notice by Klinsmann that his standards cannot slacken.
The conundrum of where to play Zusi is magnified somewhat by Donovan’s indefinite leave of absence. A spot in the middle doesn’t seem likely unless Klinsmann decides to pack the midfield in some version of a 4-5-1, and one of Zusi’s many attributes is he, like Donovan, can play wide on either side to good effect.
Also, like Donovan, he’s got a great engine, which lessens the likelihood he’ll need to be substituted fairly early if he starts a game. But despite his emergence as SKC’s attacking catalyst the past two seasons, expecting him to dictate and dominate throughout the Hexagonal is wishful thinking. He should emerge as a much better attacker.
A glut of central players has led to Kljestan’s deployment out wide, which ironically he didn’t appreciate early in his career at Chivas USA. He eventually did move into the middle, which is where he plays for Anderlecht in a linking/holding role. He’s grown smarter and stronger since his move to Europe and can certainly add a few wrinkles to the midfield mix, and at age 27 has room for further growth.
Gatt’s national team debut against Russia in November drew mixed reviews, and without a quantum leap in development he’s not likely to be a factor next year at the World Cup. The potential, though immense, is predicted on honing the skills and vision and guile to complement that amazing speed. Yet young players often improve dramatically in a short period of time, and though it’s a steep step up from the Norwegian league, Gatt is going to be closely watched.
Gaven has been off the USA radar screen since 2010 and the Crew’s failure to make the playoffs last season dimmed his luster somewhat, but he posed the team’s only attacking threat until the arrivals of Federico Higuain and Jairo Arrieta. He’s only 26 yet has already played more than 250 league matches and as a young, experienced attacker who can make things happen in the final third certainly could be a contender for the Gold Cup squad.
DeLeon started his rookie season brilliantly, scoring two great goals in the opening weeks, then faded before rebounding to finish well. His 88th-minute goal eliminated New York in the playoffs, during which he switched sides to compensate for the injury loss of Chris Pontius. His blend of energy, confidence and versatility jibes with Klinsmann’s preferences.
Soccer America's U.S. Positional Rankings
Goalkeepers: 1. Tim Howard, 2. Brad Guzan, 3. Nick Rimando ...
Right Backs: 1. Steve Cherundolo, 2 Timmy Chandler, 3. Sean Franklin ...
Central Backs: 1. Geoff Cameron, 2. Carlos Bocanegra, 3. Omar Gonzalez ...
Left Backs: 1. Fabian Johnson, 2 Edgar Castillo, 3. Michael Parkhurst ...