Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
Landon Donovan’s latest comments about his future, and about his desire to continue playing, rang the same alarm bells that went off back in May when he first revealed uncertainty about his future.
Since he burst on the scene a dozen years ago to begin what has become the best career in U.S. Men’s National Team history, Donovan has been an integral and indispensable piece to the national team puzzle. After his impressive 2010 World Cup the last thing U.S. fans wanted to think about was what life might be like for the national team without Donovan.
Well, it’s time to start thinking about it.
Yes, he’s only 30, and can still play at a high enough level to be a solid contributor to the national team’s qualifying campaign, and ultimately the 2014 World Cup, but if his heart’s not in it, and if he simply walks away, we will be forced to accept the reality that there will be life for the U.S. national team without Donovan.
It just might come sooner than most would have imagined.
In one regard, the past year has been good training for what life might be like without Donovan. He has missed so many national team games that it has allowed new faces to step in, and new players to impress Jurgen Klinsmann. Graham Zusi has emerged as a viable midfield option, and while comparisons to Donovan are unfair, Zusi’s emergence does offer some comfort as the realization that Donovan won’t be around forever becomes a more clear reality.
That being said, we shouldn’t assume Donovan is done. It’s clear he’s struggling for motivation right now, and it sure sounds like he’s burned out and in dire need of a break. There is plenty of time for him to get that time off to re-assess. The U.S. national team can afford to wait because it has spent much of the past year playing without him.
Make no mistake. Even in his current “What’s my motivation” mode, Donovan is still one of the best players in the U.S. pool. He still has speed, is still one of the most intelligent players you can put in a U.S. uniform, and his versatility means you can put him all over the field.
And if he doesn’t come back? If he decides this winter that it’s time to hang up the boots? The national team will go on. Just as it did when Claudio Reyna retired, when Tab Ramos retired and when John Harkes stopped playing.
Obviously in Donovan, the national team will lose the best attacking player the team has ever had, but the team is better equipped to deal with it now than say two or three years ao. Today, the national team has Clint Dempsey playing at a high level. It has Michael Bradley playing at Roma. The team has a forward dominating the Dutch League in Jozy Altidore, and and a player making a strong national team comeback in Eddie Johnson.
No, we may not see a player as dominant on the national team as Donovan was at his best, but even Donovan isn’t that Donovan anymore. It isn’t a reach to say the 2010 World Cup was his peak, and the two years since have seen him start out on the other side of the mountain, heading toward the end of an oustanding career.
That said. Donovan is still a quality player who, when healthy, is still good enough to start. Without him, the options on the wings for Klinsmann get a bit thinner. Donovan could player either flank in a 4-3-3 or 4-4-2, and even play as a forward. No other player in the pool offers that versatility, and his absence would definitely weaken the depth the national team currently enjoys.
There is hope for reinforcements coming up the ranks though. Along with Zusi, you have Brek Shea who is still growing as a player, and Josh Gatt, who is enjoying a bright start to his young career in Europe. Klinsmann’s use of a 4-3-3 also allows him to tap into the sudden depth the national team enjoys at forward, which makes having pure wing options less of a necessity. Losing Donovan, without any of those wingers truly emerging as a serious threat, would probably making using a 4-4-2 less of an alternative for Klinsmann.
Yes, the national team can survive without Donovan, but the U.S. is better off with him in the fold in 2013 and 2014. The best hope for the national team is to have Donovan recapture the hunger. To take some time off and find his love for the game. The best thing about the national team now is that it doesn’t need him to carry it. He can very much be a role player. Someone who can take advantage of the attention a player like Dempsey draws. Someone who can read the game on a high level like Bradley and combine with him on defense-cracking passes.
As every national team player will tell you, once you are away from the national team it becomes something you miss, and it is tough to imagine Donovan not wanting to still be a part of it all once the Hexagonal begins and the national team starts playing important matches against the likes of Mexico and Honduras. It is the reason he went to Mexico City and played in the August friendly despite not being completely healthy. It’s why he got on a plane and flew from Los Angeles to Miami with an injured knee before the team’s recent qualifying wins against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala. He was hoping to be able to go, but he had to know he couldn’t, even as he walked on that plane.
Those were the actions of someone who still cares about the national team, and still wants it to be a part of his life. He can do all the public soul-searching he wants, but those moves were the ones of somebody who we shouldn’t go writing off just yet.
Donovan put the chances of him playing in the 2014 World Cup at 50/50. It is a safe bet that number will chance once he has had some time off and a chance to decompress and think about his future.
If, by chance, he decides his national team days are over, it will be a sad day, but the team will manage without him. Just as the team has for much of the past year.