By Ridge Mahoney
The Saga of Landon Donovan, which has run for about 15 years as far as the American soccer community is concerned, is heading toward a climax.
Act I detailed his ascendancy to prominence, struggles overseas and eventual blossoming as the most hyped young U.S. player except for Freddy Adu, whose own tale has been suspended and put on the shelf. Act II portrayed his emergence as the face of the game in America, winning MLS titles with two different teams, knocking down millions in sponsorships and salary, and playing in three consecutive World Cups. In Act III, the desire and brilliance inevitably erode, the scything runs and incisive passes and spectacular goals fade away, and the career of the greatest American soccer player to date finally ends. But nobody knows how and why it will end, which adds suspense to what is already a great story.
For some observers, the end is nigh, at least for the USA, and he’ll be lucky to keep a starting spot or perhaps even get a spot on the World Cup roster. A tepid start to the year -- he’s yet to score for either club or country in six matches -- and a nagging condition of tendinitis in his knee are being cited as evidence of a serious decline that has rendered him as marginal. Clint Dempsey is now the main attacker, younger players such as Graham Zusi andAlejandro Bedoya are poised to replace him, and midfielder Michael Bradley has taken the mantle of most important contributor to national team success.
Former U.S. international Taylor Twellman has expressed concerns about Donovan’s seeming acceptance of a minor role. He still sees great value in Donovan’s game, though any player playing through tendinitis will suffer. “To me, when he’s literally firing on all cylinders and we’ve seen it already a couple of times in this early part of the season, when he’s running by people, that’s a huge, huge weapon,” says Twellman. “If he brings that to a World Cup out wide and then up front it'sJozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya, whatever it is, Graham Zusi, it’s dangerous.
“But if he’s the guy that’s just kind of seeing where it goes and seeing where the chips fall where they may, that’s not the Landon Donovan I think the U.S. needs. I look forward to this World Cup because I think Landon –- and he disagrees with me and that’s fine -- could play in another World Cup if he wanted to. He’s that kind of player, he’s very cerebral, but his heart has to be into it.”
Even if the heart is willing, the legs have to be strong, the body tuned, he mind focused. He won’t have the luxury of a long layoff as he enjoyed last year. An extended sabbatical certainly produced good results: an excellent performance in the Gold Cup -- after Jurgen Klinsmann excluded him from the three June Hexagonal matches, all of which the U.S. won without him -- and a solid season for the Galaxy. Yet there was a dropoff in sharpness at the tail end of the regular season and in the playoffs, and during the offseason, the Galaxy set about bolstering its attack so as to lessen dependence on Donovan and Robbie Keane.
“Landon’s honest, and sometimes it hurts him and makes people think he’s run away, but he was honest with us,” says Galaxy president Chris Klein, who last year sat down with Donovan to discuss long-term goals and negotiated an extension to his contract. “We know that we’ve had the best player in our country’s history playing with the Galaxy. It was important for us to understand what his goals were and his goals were one thing: to win with the Galaxy.
“Once we had that conversation and were able to look at each other across the table, we knew there was only one decision and that was to sign him. There’s been a lot of players that have come back on our national team and we still believe we have the best one.”
Klinsmann, whose criticism of Donovan’s toughness goes back to after the 2002 World Cup, long before he coached Germany and the USA, has tried to infuse the American team with additional attacking catalysts: Mix Diskerud, Zusi, Bedoya and Johannsson all bring different elements in the final third. But none of them have Donovan’s mix of skills and endurance, his quick feet and sharp brain and deep lungs, and even at 32, there’s always the possibility he can crank up his game in June unlike any other American.
Perhaps Donovan’s frankness is an attempt to lower expectations and keep him on as even a keel as possible while the World Cup craziness escalates. His honesty about fatigue and burnout is not always what fans and the press have wanted to hear, and the supposed indifference they perceive is simply his matter-of-fact persona.
Much ado stemmed from Klinsmann’s decision to drop him from the starting lineup against Mexico, and most players would be lauded for accepting the decision graciously. But this is Landon Donovan, who has lived for more than a decade in a very skewed world, and so his acceptance was interpreted by some as acknowledgment that perhaps his time has passed.
Yet the crucial time has not yet arrived, and as he showed last year -- albeit in a much different setting -- he can still deliver. The tendinitis as well as other possible ailments will be a factor, as they are for every player. But it’s doubtful he’s overly concerned about his play in April even if everybody else is. For the next month or so, until the national team gathers in Northern California May 14 to start the final phase of World Cup preparations, he’s a Galaxy player with one eye on the big show in Brazil. Act III might take several more years to play out.
“When you deal with a guy like Landon Donovan, you’re looking at this being his fourth World Cup,” says Twellman. “He’s got the experience. All you hope for if you’re Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer and Landon’s teammates is that he peaks like he did in the Gold Cup last year and gets is going around May 1. He’s the type of player that if he’s hot, he’s virtually unstoppable. We saw that in 2010. He can be that game-changer. He still has it. It’s just a matter of does it come about and does he show up in Brazil when it matters the most?”