Something had seemed off since at least the summer; even during the Gold Cup the results – a goal, a couple of assists – seem to flatter the play. I said then and wrote later that it looked like he was playing with mono, which given those results was probably an unfair diagnosis. But still, fatigue or nagging injury or whatever, he just didn’t look as dangerous, or when he did he did so in spurts, no longer appearing to be the constant threat that our team full of streaky attacking players desperately needed. The months that followed were tough to judge. There were occasional moments of brilliance, but the relative quality of his teammates versus their opposition – especially compared to what he’d face in January – meant the LA Galacticos didn’t need to rely on him.
I thought something had shifted, a tiny drop in pace, the lingering soreness that comes with age, the beginning of the decline. I thought those little difference, not to mention the losses the team around him had suffered in the intervening two years, would have a big effect on how the stint went this time. I thought it wasn’t going to be so easy. I was worried that the glorious success of the first time would be marred by the failure this second was bound to become.
I am, it would seem, an idiot. If you’re reading this, chances are you know why, but just in case you don’t: here’s proof. Instead of faltering, he came to embody some of our most positive sporting clichés.
For one, he really was their driving force, the most reliable way to get the ball not just in dangerous areas in front of goal but also to move it from the area just outside their box to that of their opponents. Considering the alternatives – especially before Darren Gibson was integrated into the team – were kicking it long or hoping Royston Drenthe didn’t take a touch 15 yards in front of him, he had to succeed at this.
Second, he was a catalyst for their side in the most literal sense of the word. It’s the best descriptor for the sense of speed Donovan brought to the Blues’ play. At times when everyone else seemed to be going through the motions, particularly early in the spell after the slog of the holiday schedule, Donovan would get the ball and push forward as early and as quickly as he possibly could, yelling “Arriba! Arriba! Ándale! Ándale!” as he did so. (That bit’s unverified.) He would see space in front of him on the outside and surge into it, running like a dog chasing a thrown tennis ball. Late in one game – I forget who they were playing – I saw him break forward with the ball for a good thirty yards before he suddenly remembered they had a lead, and it would be more prudent perhaps to hold onto the ball, at which point he somewhat sheepishly checked back and stood on the ball for a second. He was basically a shuttler and a winger for them, not roles he’s unused to.
But as the loan progressed he seemed to grow more and more confident, and began coming inside more and more effectively, running away from space and into a crowd in order to create space for his teammates, leading to those wonderful throughballs two assists. So by the end, he was shuttler and winger and playmaker, the kind of multi-function renaissance footballer the U.S. needs him to be.
I think this is the quality I missed the most over the summer. Even before the arrival of Jurgen and his possession-based system, which he has had limited reps in anyway, Donovan seemed somewhat tentative, dwelling too long on the ball waiting for something to happen, which, given the level of off-the-ball movement displayed by most of our strike pool, meant he was waiting far too long. I missed that energetic, play-fast Donovan, the one constantly bringing his team closer to goal or closer to goals, going always forward, like someone’s Latin motto no doubt.
Can he keep it up? Well that depends. The Galaxy don’t really need him in that all-action role, they’ve filled out the rest of the roster nicely with worker bees and David Beckham who can carry the ball forward (and in the case of the latter, play a killer pass too.) But does Jurgen Klinsmann?
Here’s the $64,000 question going not just into the game Italy but forward over the next several years: Where does Donovan fit? Neither an attacking midfield spot nor a place solely on the right wing would do justice to the freer role he’s given at Everton. Perhaps the best option is the Danny Williams role from the picture at right, a kind of right winger/carrilero. Williams looked uncomfortable being asked to push out onto the right side, but Landon could thrive there.
He wouldn’t be isolated high up on that side; he could drop deep to collect the ball and take some of the ball movement duties off the hub midfielder. And, most importantly, he could have some space to surge into, providing some thrust on the end of the possession-based attack, and going always forward.