Donovan’s Year…or, Possibly, His Last World Cup Cycle?

Andrew Dixon – aka One Grown Man – has a good piece up on USSoccerplayas.com. It’s not just that he starts with a second to yesterday’s somewhat over-alarmed post about United States’ World Cup qualifying campaign (OK, it’s subtle; just squint) and ends with an entirely reasonable plea that someone televise the African Nations Cup. It’s the middle number of Dixon’s three wishes for 2008 that hits on an issue I’ve been mulling for about a week, namely, Landon Donovan’s game. Because I’ve been thinking about this on a different track than Dixon, perhaps it’s not surprising I end up in a different place…say, six years down the road.

Long story short, Dixon’s wish is for Donovan to “dominate American soccer” ran headlong into some thinking I’ve been doing about Donovan’s game – and its potential limitations.

Love him or hate him, Donovan is the most lethal attacking player this country has ever produced and he’s got the numbers – assists, goals, and caps – to back it up. And the damnedest thing is Donovan has all those caps, has tied Wynalda’s goal-scoring record and, if I’m not mistaken, he holds the records on assists at twenty-frickin’-five (as shown at the bottom of this; OK, except the assists, but I’m pretty sure he has that one). But the deeper question involves what makes Donovan’s game work? If I had to pick a controlling factor, something that separates him from the pack, I’d go with speed – e.g. he can take players on because he’s a quick little shit, especially on the first several steps. After that, he passes well, but not brilliantly, and I’ve never seen anything over-remarkable in his touch/dribbling. Bottom line: Donovan possesses the basic skills, he has good vision, and a good brain. Take away that speed, however, and one has to wonder what he’d be.

And that’s kind of the point: age will take away that speed one day. A look at his player bio tells me Donovan will be 32 in June of 2014. True, he might hold onto his pace, but will it still be international class? A lot can happen to a body over 6 years – especially among professional players and especially among players for the ever-barnstorming, Beckham-hawking LA Galaxy…I think their seasons work like “dog season’s” or something, y’know, one of theirs is two for everyone else. Will Donovan learn more tricks by then? More to the point, will he have the motivation to learn more tricks by then? Maybe the downside to Donovan sticking States-side comes over the long haul. Barring injury, he’s virtually automatic on any MLS roster and I doubt that will change by the time World Cup 2014 rolls around. It’s also unlikely he’ll need to do much with his game by then, especially if all the fears about expansion diluting the MLS talent pool come true; his current game works well enough in an undiluted league.

I’m not ripping him for this – it’s his life, after all – but the decision to stick with a comfortable set-up has consequences. Maybe the current World Cup cycle really is his time. Any thoughts?

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4 Responses

  1. I would give Landy credit for being a good finisher in the box as well. He might not keep his pace over the years, but he could turn into a quality poacher. A poor man’s Michael Owen is the comparison I keep coming back to.

    He’s never really settled on a position with the Nats, which is good and bad. I think he’s best as a second forward, withdrawn. You have to have the right type of forward to play with him though. Brian McBride, yes, Eddie Johnson, no. I don’t think Landy works best against quality teams as a schemer, a true #10, but can get away with it against lesser teams. He can also play out wide on the right. In a 4-3-3, he would be very good on the right.

  2. Not bad by way of ideas, though I’m still skeptical. Donovan’s not big enough to mix it up in the box/clean up junk and his crossing isn’t the best, which leaves me wondering about him playing wide. I do like what you wrote about playing off a certain kind of forward; your poaching angle could work on that level, and perhaps pretty well. So, yeah, get fit and get better Kenny Cooper (or Adam Cristman or Conor Casey, etc.)

    I’m just getting the feeling that 2010 will be his shot at being “the man” on a U.S. team in a World Cup and that’s down to his game. Donovan can’t do anything to make factors beyond him come together. Ideally, he’ll adapt his game, but I’m not sure I see him doing that absent the motivation.

  3. I think you’re underestimating Donovan somewhat. He’s got more going for him than just speed. His first touch is sweet and his vision and soccer brain is excellent as well, not to mention his one-touch passing.

    Just because he doesn’t do many “tricks” out there doesn’t mean he can’t; he just chooses not to. I’ve seen him break ankles with his moves. He does them when necessary.

    Also, whenever an Adu or Dempsey or Feilhaber make one of those sweet, over-the-top chip passes to a forward, comments are made that they’re “the only player who would think to make such a pass much less be able to complete it,” and I’m thinking, what? Donovan does those at least once a game in virtually every game he’s played for the galaxy and for the National Team. In fact, in those recent games down in New Zealand and Australia, Donovan had a superb move – sombreroed the defender and as the ball came down to him, he passed it with the outside of his foot to Edson Buddle, which hit him in stride and he took a touch and then shot it in.

    Sure, this may be his last cycle. Just as it may be Dempsey’s and Beasley’s and Bocanegra’s last cycle as well. Or he may not be “the man” for the next cycle either – but I think it will be because US Soccer as a whole is growing and not because of any detriment to Donovan.

    I commend you on your blog, though. Because, like Dixon, you didn’t fall into the bashing Donovan crap that ruins so many sites.

  4. I think you rate Donovan’s basic game higher than I do and that’s fair and normal, but I also think the game is better for disagreements of that sort. I do think Donovan is a good player, even if he’s just not the type I really like watching (yeah, I’m a Mathis fan; I see more “fun” in Mathis’ game and I’m a sucker for that).

    But an added significance attaches to the possibility 2010 could be his last cycle; that’s precisely because he’s the player he is. For all their renown, Dempsey and Beasley don’t carry a burden of expectation equal to Donovan’s; Donovan is The Man, the one everyone looks to for something extraordinary; he’s the first name the foreign press – especially the Mexican press – mentions on a U.S. roster. That Donovan stands out that much, and yet somehow doesn’t stand tall enough – for whatever reason, the ones I list above or anyone else’s – and that says something. I guess that’s my point: 2010 is his last chance to add those extra inches in stature. And, no, I just don’t see how he’ll adapt his game when his mobility decreases, but file that under one of the many things about which I’d like to be proved wrong.

    I do agree that U.S. soccer is getting better across the board. Where I think I disagree – and I could be reading/adding this to your point – is that the improvement pertains more to collective than individual talent. There’s no question we’re a better national team; what’s missing is the individual to take us someplace special. Donovan – and this is to his credit – is the first player to so much as look like a candidate.

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