No doubt many U.S. fans are frustrated with Donovan’s seeming lack of dedication to the cause. They should bear in mind how much Landon Donovan has given to the national team over the years.
They should also recognize how much Donovan can still contribute to the Nats as they qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup and come next summer, to U.S. success in the quadrennial tournament.
In the last two CONCACAF qualifiers, the U.S. roster was one of the least experienced rosters to ever try for points in the Hex.
Landon Donovan is the most experienced player in the U.S. player pool. His 130 starts for the USMNT is the most ever, and he is second only to Cobi Jones in total number of games played (144). He is the U.S. leader in World Cup games played (14) and goals scored (5).
Simply put, there is no one in the U.S. player pool with Landon Donovan’s experience.
At 31 years of age, Donovan is starting the inevitable decline that happens to all elite athletes. However, he is also at the point in his career when experience can carry a player to better performances despite the beginning physical decline.
Assuming that his physical prowess is starting to decline, his time off can only help his body, and perhaps his mind as well. A fit and rested Landon Donovan brings much needed experience to the team.
In the nominal 4-3-3 formation favored by head coach Jürgen Klinsmann, exceptional wing play is essential to generating offense.
With the three midfielders pinched inside, the wing-forwards provide the necessary linkage to the fullbacks, width in the attack, dribble penetration in the final third, providing service to the other two forwards and finishing crosses from the opposite side.
Graham Zusi made the most of Donovan’s absence, showing flashes of skilled wing play. Zusi, however, is a one dimensional player, adept at providing service from the wings but not providing the ball skills and tactical acumen often seen in the world’s great wingers.
Eddie Johnson poses a similar problem; he has the speed to run at the defense and is a decent finisher, but his crossing and tactical decision-making has always been a weakness.
Hercules Gomez has a huge motor and is a first-class finisher, but he struggles to create opportunities for his teammates and really requires service or rebounds to get the ball in front of goal.
Brek Shea? Well, we’re still waiting for him to find his inner professionalism and turn his considerable skill set into a full-time occupation.
And so on.
Left side, right side, it doesn’t really matter where you position Landon Donovan—he’s played both sides in the EPL, sometimes in the same game.
This is key, anyone who watches high-level soccer knows that many modern coaches will switch their wingers during a game to try and surprise and unbalance the defense. Suddenly, the left-footed player who was driving down the sideline is now cutting in to the middle on his dominant foot looking to shoot.
Klinsmann tries this tactic periodically, and his inexperienced wingers look like lost children when they switch sides. Donovan played this tactic for Everton, often spending long stretches of each half on the opposite side from which he started the game.
The U.S. has no wingers with Donovan’s skills and experience. His return will be an instant upgrade at the position.
Everyone knows the U.S. has struggled to generate chances thus far in the Hex. Even though Donovan is the all-time national team leader in goals scored with 49, an even more important statistic is that he is also the all-time national team leader in assists.
Donovan’s 48 assists are more than double the next ranked player (Cobi Jones, 22 assists). While many U.S. fans will tell you that Donovan’s goal scoring numbers are padded with PKs, no such criticism can be leveled at his assist rate.
The U.S. is struggling to find service to their in-form striker Jozy Altidore, and their top goal-scoring threat, Clint Dempsey, is often found dropping deep into the field to try and pick up a ball.
Landon Donovan can change all of that. His time playing with other star players on the L.A. Galaxy, along with stints on EPL and Bundesliga teams stacked with goal scorers, has taught Donovan that one of the best ways to impact a game is to get the ball to the right people in the right places.
People often confuse Klinsmann’s stated strategy of ball possession as an attempt to mimic the “tiki-taka” style of Barcelona or the Spanish national team. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The goal of Klinsmann’s possession strategy is to give time to organize the offense, tire defenders out chasing the ball while moving them from their preferred defensive shape and to get his team into a rhythm. From there, they can either attack with passing combinations, runs down the flak, hitting long diagonal balls or simply playing a skip pass to the next attacker.
There is no desire to penetrate the opponent’s penalty box each and every time as Barcelona does, and it would be silly to try.
But if Klinsmann really wants his team to possess the ball and be patient in the attacking buildup, he needs creative players with the skills and experience necessary to pull it off.
Landon Donovan is this kind of player. His L.A. Galaxy often possesses the ball for long stretches before opening up a defense, and Everton were never a chip-and-chase team while Donovan was playing for them.
Donovan has the ball skills and passing acumen essential to ball possession. He can be patient, playing back passes and square balls, moving the defense around until an opportunity presents itself. Donovan will not be rushed into pumping long balls up field as many U.S. players are who seem frustrated if they have to keep playing the ball backwards instead of going for goal.
With Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, the U.S has a solid core of players who are perfectly content to knock the ball around until the defense either loses its shape or its concentration.
Yes, Landon Donovan will have to prove first that his play on the field is of a high-enough caliber to earn a spot on the USMNT. Then, when he gets to camp, he’ll have to show Klinsmann that the time off was a worthwhile investment.
The attributes that Donovan brings to the men’s national team are in short supply at the moment, and one has to suspect that is why Klinsmann has left the door so wide open for Donovan’s return.