Thursday, April 4, 2013

Welcome Back, Landon

By Kevin Beane

Landon Donovan has held the weight of United States soccer on his shoulders for a very long time. It has been almost 15 years since he earned tryouts with soccer giants like Manchester United and Arsenal. Back then, he ultimately signed with German side Bayer Leverkusen. He was 17-years-old and already the future of U.S. soccer, Freddy Adu before Adu.

The move to Germany was not a happy one, and was a portent of things to come. He played mostly with the reserves, making just seven appearances with the senior club, two as a starter, with no goals. When he had time off, he couldn't get back to the United States soon enough. Some guys make the cultural adjustment when going to play overseas where their mother tongue is not spoken. Or they only care about soccer and don't pay attention to anything else. Landon's not like that, and I think it's fair to call him sensitive, in a good way. He's that rarest of athlete, one with something of a poet's soul.

Bayer Leverkusen was in a tough spot. Here they had a player with boundless potential, but very, very young and homesick. So they loaned him out to the San Jose Earthquakes. He kicked ass, and would never regularly feature for a European side again. Instead, perhaps more than any other player, he would give legitimacy to the MLS. As Donovan reached stardom and put his teenage years far behind him, he still balked at the opportunity to return to Europe and soccer's biggest stage, save for three for-the-hell-of-it stints for Bayern Munich and Everton during the MLS offseason.

Those three stints meant that, essentially, in three of the last five years, he was playing for 12 months.

This is no mean feat. The soccer season — both here and in Europe, is longer than baseball season, yet it's physically taxing enough that most teams only play one game a week, sometimes two (rarely, if there are scheduling issues, three). And this only refers to his club duties. He also, of course, played for the U.S. National team — 144 times since 2000. For most of that time, he was the pre-eminent U.S. player. He's essentially been playing year-round with all of the physical and mental rigors of being the face of U.S. soccer for a decade straight.

So he decided he needed a break. He didn't go to Europe this time for the MLS offseason, and told his employers, the U.S. National Team and the L.A. Galaxy, he was not going to be back until he was ready to be back. That time happens to be now, with the MLS season in its early stages.

Donovan has enough pull to do such a thing, and few others do. Still, he's earned his break, and should not be begrudged for it. Nonetheless, U.S. head coach Juergen Klinsmann, by all accounts a hardnosed type who has little use for vacationing players, may have in fact begrudged him a little. He has made no promises for allowing Donovan to return to the U.S. team and probably didn't ask Donovan for a post card. "Landon wanted his time. He made certain decisions throughout the last couple of years that are his decisions. I watch that. I evaluate that.

"I could have evaluated him a few times when he was with us, not that many times. I will make the call at the end of the day if he fits into my plans or not."

Fortunately for all concerned parties, Donovan wouldn't have it any other way. "I would absolutely love to be a part of the national team again going forward, I am itching to represent my country again and be a part of it. I also understand very clearly that some decisions I have made are going to make that a difficult task." Everything he says sounds just as intelligent and thoughtful.

How badly does the US need him back? If you listen to Kevin Baxter of the L.A. Times, desperately. "Lost in the euphoria over the United States national team's tie with Mexico in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday was one simple fact: This American team isn't very good."

If we look past the tie with Mexico? You mean that team that is clearly the best in the region, a team we had never beaten, ever, in Mexico before this past summer? I'd say that's pretty good, especially considering we got that result against the run of play, thanks largely to a back four that is widely considered the weakness of this team.

Baxter goes on to bolster his point. "Consider that in three World Cup qualifiers this year the U.S. has scored twice, been outshot by a margin of more than 2 to 1 — including an incredible 17-1 in the Mexico game — and managed only three shots on goal."

Let's look at those three games, shall we? Obviously getting outshot 17-1 by Mexico isn't great, but again, we got the result in the stadium that is Hell on Earth for anyone opposing Mexico. You know where else it's hard to play? Honduras. After the United States and Mexico, Honduras is the third best team in the region, and very few countries come away with road wins anywhere in Central America.

Finally, the third game, against Costa Rica. For him to use a game in a blizzard — which the U.S. won — as evidence of the US's ineptitude is downright disingenuous. No one would look good or play well in those conditions.

After those three matches, the US currently sits in third place in the region, which would be good enough to qualify for the World Cup, with the two most difficult games behind us.. It's all downhill from here. Does Baxter really think we are going to get outshot 2-1 when we start playing the likes of Jamaica or Panama (who to be fair, is off to a great start, but is not historically on the level of the U.S. and Mexico, or even Honduras and Costa Rica), or have a proper, non-snowpocalypse home game?

These results are a jumping point to demonstrate how badly Baxter thinks the US National Team needs Donovan back. We don't, though. For one, despite the yeoman's showing against Mexico, this team's Achilles heel is still the backfield. Donovan can't help there. Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey did not have a great run in the qualifiers, but we know they can score and are unquestionably assets to the U.S. attack. In fact, Dempsey has probably passed Donovan as the king of US soccer at this point.

Does that mean that I don't want Donovan back on the National Team? Of course not. He still not only has a role to play, but a starring, difference-making one.

But the U.S. is not doomed to fail without him, and that's good, because Donovan has always marched to his own drummer, and I would not be surprised if his swan song approaches sooner than later.

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