Landon Donovan has returned from the wilderness. After taking some time off and getting dumped from the U.S. A-squad as a consequence, Donovan had to “be the best Landon Donovan ever” at the Gold Cup to get back into the World Cup mix. Tied for the tournament lead in goals (5) and leading in assists (7) through the semifinal, it’s safe to presume he has reclaimed his place in the starting XI. Donovan should, barring injury, write a last chapter in Brazil. But it’s worth looking back at his career and asking where he stacks up among the American soccer “greats.” The answer is complex.
Donovan has certainly been the most frustrating American player. He was the brightest star from the first generation that grew up with a professional development structure. He was the standout at the U-17 World Cup in 1999. He was named Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup. After signing with a reputable German club, he looked destined to spearhead a new golden age as the first American soccer star internationally. It never quite materialized.
Landon flamed out returning to Germany from MLS in 2004. Returning stateside, he hit a plateau. He was a star, in a sense. But his excellent performances came with the caveat that he was playing in a league (and a region) where he was seldom challenged as undisputed best player. His fire came out with Beckham’s arrival. He silenced most critics with a successful stint at Everton in 2010. He has played some of his best games in pivotal moments. Though it’s still hard not viewing his career through the lens of what might have been, had he spent his best years fully dedicating himself to his craft in Europe.
The frustration is part of what makes him also the most fascinating American player. He is abnormal, as an athlete, for being normal. Most star athletes have polished, personable, endorsement friendly veneers. Donovan can be blunt and curt. We anticipate sports automatons, hell bent on achievement. Donovan seeks balance in life and is thoughtful. In that context, it can be jarring. He has almost been a bit too human.
Looking at “issues” he’s had over his career… He left home too quickly when he was young and came back. He felt disaffected when his company paid a lot to bring in a flashy new guy at work. He preferred living a laid back life in California. He questioned the direction his life was heading in his 30s and took a few months off to go travel. All of that is perfectly reasonable, unless you are in the warped world of athletic stardom.
Where does Donovan rate among his American peers? It depends on what you value. You have to credit him for his USMNT performances. Much of the cumulative numbers have been posted against subpar competition. Nonetheless, all-time leader in goals and assists is nothing to sneer at. Despite his disappointing 2006 campaign, Donovan is the most accomplished World Cup player the U.S. and arguably CONCACAF have ever produced. His five career World Cup goals put him level with Zico and Zinedine Zidane among others. Two of them came in landmark moments against Mexico in 2002 and Algeria in 2010.
One must factor in his club performances too, though. It’s where players spend most of their careers. It’s where the highest competition standard exists. It’s there where Donovan’s record becomes spottier. He has been dominant in MLS. He has a league MVP. He has made Best XI six times. His teams have won five MLS Cups and four Supporters’ Shields. However, that’s in MLS. His intermittent stops at the top level in Europe have been a different story.
Donovan proved he could subsist in the EPL, during two brief stints with Everton. His good form there, though, must be countered with his multiple trips to Germany which were, to put it nicely, abysmal. He was run out of both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich with haste. After the latter stint, the club’s president suggested he could not get a game for the reserves team. The amateur reserves team. Stats don’t tell you everything. But two goals in 36 appearances combined in Germany and England does tell you something.
That disparity between country and club makes it hard to compare Donovan to his American peers. He may have achieved more than any American player as an International. But many American players with very good international careers have done far more at top level.
Claudio Reyna was “Captain America” and had a solid 12-year career in the Bundesliga, SPL and EPL. Brian McBride scored 30 goals for the U.S. and managed a solid five-year run as a starter at Fulham. Clint Dempsey has scored 35 times for the national team and has played nearly seven quality seasons in the EPL. He has 48 goals the past three years. One also can’t slight the goalkeepers. Tim Howard, Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller have each had extended runs for the national team and had careers of longer than a decade at Europe’s top level, with stops at clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United.
Looking at paper careers, it becomes difficult to label Donovan superior to any of those guys. Though “greatness” includes a strong dose of perception. Spreadsheets aside, the World Cup is still the World Cup. It’s still where soccer immortality is made. If Donovan delivers another standout performance for the U.S. in Brazil and leads Klinsmann’s team to the knockout stages, “greatest” U.S. Soccer player may no longer be a debate.
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