Looking Back at Landon Donovan the Player

Soccer Features Landon Donovan
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Barring a dramatic announcement, Landon Donovan has played his last game of professional soccer. Thanks to Robbie Keane, the LA Galaxy beat the England Revolution 2-1 in extra time and Donovan lifted his sixth MLS cup. As the US all-time leading scorer who participated in three World Cups, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame. Lots of ink has been spilled on Donovan the Figurehead of MLS, Donovan the “What if”, and Donovan the “wronged by Klinsmann”, but nobody has really looked closely at Donovan the player. Just what made him so great?

When we focus solely on Donovan’s play the pitch, we see two eras and two stories: the petulance of youth and the uncertainty of adolescence. His career was a long arc that started too high but didn’t end as low as critics would suggest.

The first incarnation of Landon Donovan was a cocky, angry, and driven teenage striker. At the 2002 World Cup, he provided the lightning to partner Brian McBride’s thunder. Donovan’s movement can be summed into two options: run early and diagonally at the opposing defense to spring the offside trap, or check back to the sidelines, receive the ball, and dribble at an outside back like a winger. His goal against Portugal combined all the elements of classic Donovan: good positioning, quick thinking, and plenty of fortuity. A teammate tackled the ball, worked it quickly to Donovan, whose cross deflected off a defender and went into the goal.

Donovan’s goal against Mexico in the Round of 16 was vintage US soccer from the Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley eras: the team sits deep, intercepts a pass, counterattacks through the flanks, and a cross leads to a header leads to a goal. Of course, from the comfort of today we can take these things for granted. However, in 2002, competent wing play, decent crosses, and precise finishing were not prevalent in the US talent pool. Donovan embodied both. At the time, fans viewed him as an anomaly. America had finally produced a great player to stand on the world’s stage. Or so we thought.

My favorite game from the 2002 World Cup to Donovan-watch is the quarterfinal loss to Germany. Why? Because he’s everywhere. He played possessed. In the early stage, his pace and dribbling troubled the German defense to no end. God gave him two blessed feed, not just one. His left-footed shot after a nice inside cut whizzed by Oliver Kahn’s far post. When he punched the ground with both hands after the miss, you expected the stadium to shake. Later in the game, he used his left to play a cheeky give and go in the box, then turned on a dime but his right footed shot lacked mustard. And, of course, after the German handball on the line, Donovan runs to the linesman to yell his case. The veins in his neck

What’s remarkable is how Donovan uses the fear of his speed to unsettle defenders, to use the absence of speed to create space. Just as Allen Iverson’s cross-over once fell Michael Jordan, Donovan’s ability to both dribble at high speeds and stop on a dime are used to great effect. A middle-aged soccer brain loitered in the body of an adolescent.

Of course, all players lose their pace. I won’t dwell in the “Landy cakes” debate, but let’s say things went sour for Donovan. Things did not pan out in Germany, and the 2006 World Cup was a flop. Granted, the US played in a tough group and the surrounding cast was either too old or not up to par, but Donovan himself failed to impress. Alongside a slower and less effective Brian McBride, defenders could crowd Landon out easier. Four years had passed, but he still couldn’t play with his back to goal. He would drop deep to central midfield to ask for the ball from the overwhelmed Claudio Reyna and Pablo Mastroeni, but not know what to do with it.

As a youthful and hungry striker, Donovan’s speed overcame deficiencies in his game. As he inevitably lost a step, he faced a new challenge: could he adapt his game? More importantly, new US coach Bob Bradley had to ask: what is Donovan’s best role on the field? Despite being on track to easily break the US record for goals, Landon found himself farther away from the 18 yard box. He lacked the cardio and tackling for a central role, so he found himself on the flanks. Yet the goals still flowed.

In the 2009 Confederations Cup, Donovan and Dempsey played wide in a 4-4-2 that could generously be characterized as a 4-2-2-2. Basically, both wide midfielders could pinch inside and push forwards to create combinations with either Jozy Altidore or Charlie Davies. Donovan scored a gem of a counterattacking goal vs. Brazil in the final, cutting inside Lucio before directing a laser left-footed shot to the far post. But what really stands out from Donovan during this era is his pass first approach. Rather than run down a right back, he learned to look for teammates. His assist to Charlie Davies at the Azteca may be the best US assist in history. The ball rolls yet cuts through two defensive lines and leaves Davies with a simple side-footed finish.

His crowning moment of course came on a counterattack. In the last group game of the 2010 World Cup, the US needed to beat Algeria to advance. Deep in extra time, the US was level with the North Africans. However, a quick Tim Howard toss sprung Donovan, who pushed the ball to Jozy Altidore. Jozy crossed for Demsey in the box, who bundled into the goalkeeper and a defender. Donovan trailed the play and accelerated like a quicksilver, pouncing on the loose ball to smoothly side-foot into the side-netting.

For a decade, the US and Donovan were lethal on the break, more comfortable running at an out of position defense than passing around a parked bus. Critics claimed that bad opposition in MLS and CONCACAF made Donovan look good, but, conversely, what if Donovan’s greatness simply made the opponent look mediocre? At heart, the criticism of Donovan is a counterfactual wasteland, a masturbatory academic exercise. Donovan was always more Ribery than Zidane, a gifted winger with an eye for goal or the killer assist. His timing, finishing, and ambidexterity were off the charts, even if the overall pace and rhythm of the game eluded him. Rather than pick his moments, he created them. When you’re that talented, the field always looks like an unguarded village to plunder. A defender is either too big and slow or too weak and small. Nothing can stop you.

Donovan was only a victim in that his meteoric start led millions to dream impossibly bigger things for him. But his rise and slow descent remind us that greatness never truly extinguishes. If you stir the ashes after a large blaze, embers still flicker and one will always burn true.

Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.

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