Note: This article was written back in April of 2008 when I was still writing on just my personal blog. I have since branched out to begin writing for a soccer blog entitled Endlines. If you dig this article, please cruise over there and check out what we got going about the latest news and developments. Cheers!
So far this month has been all soccer all the time for me. Not being one to buck a good trend, I thought I’d add to that que despite the plunge of my favorite Gunners. But, while I won’t be talking about them in this particular post, I will be talking about another team that I follow voraciously…The United States Men’s National Soccer Team. In this case I want to talk specifically about our reigning star player…Landon Donovan. I recently read a post on ESPN’s Soccernet by Steven Davis in which he eloquently articulated an issue that surrounds Donovan: bluntly, a lot of soccer fans hate Landon Donovan. Few of the world’s players who star for their national team and have had the kind of professional success (three MLS titles, a U.S. Open Cup crown, a record four Honda U.S. Player of the Year medals, scored more goals for the senior team than anyone, etc…) draw so much ire from his country’s fans. Why, Davis wondered, are their so many Donovan-bashers for a person who obviously loves to play for his country, works so hard at it, and is so talented? Now, I feel it’s only fair to say that I have regularly and openly griped about Landon Donovan, but I do respect his obvious talent. So please allow me to speak my piece about why I find myself often among the Donovan-bashers.
I don’t really blame Donovan for not enjoying his time overseas and wanting to come back to the MLS. Yes, the level of play over in Germany is better, and I think he would have developed more as a player by staying, but you have to play where you’ll be successful and comfortable. Benny Feilhaber made the move overseas and is now a ghost on his squad. His playing situation has gotten so bad that Americans are practically clamoring for him to come home and play in the MLS. Double standard? Maybe a little. But then again, no one has exactly expected Feilhaber to be the shoulders upon which the future of American soccer rest. And this gets at the heart of my problem with Landon Donovan. He invites this kind of scrutiny and responsibility onto his shoulders, but has yet to deliver when his country’s fans were counting on him. Davis points out Donovan’s goal against Mexico in the 2002 World Cup as an achievement worth holding up to those who dislike Landon, and rightly so. But at the 2002 World Cup, Donovan was a fresh-face player who wasn’t expected to carry the team. His play, which basically amounted to over-achieving from the expectations of him, was one of the reasons the team went so far. But in 2006 Landon was one of the experienced players and one of the most outspoken. Every news segment about the US’s preparation for the cup included an interview of Landon Donovan saying that the MNT could be world beaters. He took on the expectations, he invited the pressure, and then he vanished. Donovan’s contribution to the team in Germany was negligible. Donovan’s play since the 2006 cup has been good, but the only time he has stepped up to carry the team has been in smaller games that haven’t carried the pressure. We heard more from Donovan during the run up to Germany than we did from our captain, Claudio Reyna. Reyna was the perfect type of captain for the US at that time because we weren’t world-beaters. He was quiet and hard working. He let his play speak for him. Granted, Reyna had a poor cup in Germany, but he wasn’t the one we expected to carry the team despite his armband.
Davis is right when he says that Donovan is more than a character in a book or story, and that he needs to be thought of as a real person even by the public crazy for soccer success. But as long as Donovan continues to be the face of his domestic squad, and the one giving the interviews with his trademark gusto, he will be the one people watch when they tune into the MNT games. If he doesn’t produce after calling the pressure and attention to himself, people will continue to point the finger at him when the Americans don’t achieve the success he tells them is possible.