By FRANCO PANIZO
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Landon Donovan’s curtain call with the U.S. Men’s National Team has dominated so much of this week’s attention, it has been easy to lose sight of the fact that the Americans have a real game to play.
There is no question that Donovan will once again steal the headlines on Friday as he bids au revoir to the U.S., but there are plenty of other subplots that will garner attention as the Americans host Ecuador at Rentschler Field in their first home game since the World Cup.
From the midfield’s continued development to the ongoing competition for the No. 1 goalkeeping spot, there will be much to keep an eye on during the friendly that is expected to be played in front of more than 33,000-plus fans. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is using the fixture as another building block towards the 2015 Gold Cup, and is looking to see who from this relatively young group of players can continue to impress after starting the new four-year cycle with a 1-0 road win over the Czech Republic last month.
“We’re looking forward to an interesting game here with Ecuador, a side that was also in Brazil in the summer,” said Klinsmann. “Just by looking at this Ecuador team, it’s full of skillful players, it’s full of speed, it’s a very dynamic team, and it will be a good benchmark for us coming from now this friendly about a month ago in the Czech Republic.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re also obviously looking forward to give Landon a wonderful farewell here in front of hopefully a sold-out stadium, and we wish him just that he’s enjoying every second of it.”
Indeed, Donovan will be the talk of the night. The 32-year-old attacker will lace up his cleats one final time before officially closing out a legendary, 15-year international career that has seen him make 156 international appearances, score a U.S.-best 57 goals, and record a team-high 58 others.
Donovan will be honored before the match with a banner covering the tunnel in between the locker rooms and field that reads “LegenD 10″ as well as a pre-game tifo from the American Outlaws. He will be the U.S. captain and wear his iconic No. 10 once more. He will play about 30 minutes, but they are sure to be a memorable, emotional and electric 30 minutes.
The drama of this past summer is still very much alive, however. With Donovan controversially left off the U.S.’s World Cup squad by Klinsmann in May, a lot of the talk this week has been geared towards the two men’s strained relationship.
All that will be pushed to the side once the ball gets rolling, as the sole focus gears towards his final half-hour in a U.S. jersey before he comes off to a likely standing ovation and wave of emotion.
“Landon is a great player. He’s the most decorated player in U.S. soccer history, really,” said midfielder Alejandro Bedoya. “Obviously, he’s deserving of this. It’s going to be a special game, a special occasion for him, and all credit to him.”
Once Donovan steps off the field and officially passes the torch, the next generation of U.S. talent will try to grab the spotlight in an effort to impress Klinsmann. Youngsters like Joe Gyau, Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona all seem poised to earn starts after helping the Americans defeat the Czech Republic in Prague in September, and will aim to make the most of their chances against a talent Ecuador squad that includes veterans like free agent Segundo Castillo, Walter Ayovi of Pachuca, and Dynamo Moscow’s Christian Noboa.
Which players Klinsmann deploys in his midfield and how they fare will be especially intriguing. With regulars like Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman not in camp, it is likely that Klinsmann again turns to the midfield trio of Bedoya, Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona.
The latter three players all started together in Prague last month, and while it was evident that there was room for them to grow given that none of them are traditional defensive midfielders, there were enough encouraging signs to trot them out together again.
“It was pretty interesting what we did in Czech Republic,” said Corona. “I know Mix for a while now since (2012) qualifying team to the Olympics and I always had a great chemistry with him. Now playing alongside with Alejandro and Mix, I think we’re pretty similar type players.
“I think we know each other mentally and I think that’s a great advantage. Even though we’re not like No. 6s, we are creative players, so we can either defend or go and help out in front.”
For Klinsmann, the key is to develop a midfield that is filled with players capable of doing things well on both sides of the ball. He even pointed to the recent performance at the World Cup as why the U.S. needs that.
“I think where we really struggled especially against Belgium was to defend as a team, defend as a unit,” said Klinsmann. “When two or three players are not involved in getting behind the ball and making things really tight and difficult for the opponent to play through then you end up with these crazy amount of shots that Belgium had at us or even Germany controlled most of the game.
“What we’re trying to work on simply is improving everything both ways together.”
Klinsmann will also be further gauging who is more capable of being the Americans’ top-choice goalkeeper. Instead of splitting halves between Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando like he did last month, Klinsmann intends to give Guzan a full 90 minutes against Ecuador before doing the same with Rimando next Tuesday vs. Honduras.
This approach will give both players a full opportunity to each prove their worth, and stake claims at the currently-vacant starting spot in between the pipes.
While a sizable chunk of the game against the Ecuadorians will be about helping determine the future of the U.S., the majority of it will about honoring the past. Donovan will get the international goodbye that some thought he would never get, and will do so amidst a shower of praise for all that he has done in his time as a U.S. player.
“It’s disappointing to see him go,” said forward Jozy Altidore. “But if he feels that this is the right time, you have to support him and thank him for all he’s done because he’s had a great career.”