September 12, 2013
By Michael Lewis
The Donovan factor: 'He's a guy that when he's on the field puts fear in the opponent'
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Three is little doubt that the U.S. National Team needs Landon Donovan and Landon Donovan needs the U.S. National Team.
Donovan wound up front and center of the U.S.'s World Cup berth clinching victory over Mexico on Tuesday night. He set up the first goal -- by Eddie Johnson -- and scored the second tally in what turned into yet another 2-0 win at Columbus Crew Stadium.
Not too shabby for a 31-year-old veteran who considered perhaps calling it a career last winter.
He is the best American player and probably makes his best impact as a midfielder, where he can use his vision to decide whether to make a break-through pass to a teammate or make a run toward the goal. No one on the team possess those abilities. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be anyone coming through the youth ranks who can do the same.
But it's not just his production on the team, but his presence is a factor as well.
"He's a guy that when he's on the field puts fear in the opponent," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We've got some key guys and you can't mark [Clint] out of the game when you have to worry about Landon. It frees up Eddie or Jozy to do their thing. Landon is one of these guys that gives you a seven or eight out of 10 every game and he can be counted on for that. That's not easy to come by."
Donovan got a lot of stick from fans and event the media for his self-imposed exile from the game this past winter. He wanted to look at his options and came back recharged and ready to play at the top of his game.
He missed the first six qualifiers in the CONCACAf hexagonal, came back and proved himself with a magnificent, dominating and Golden Ball performance at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July.
“We’ve always said that Landon is an important part of our team," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "The things that he went through were his decision. We were totally fine with that, but he also had to understand that he wasn’t getting anything for granted. He had to work his way back, to fight his way back, and that’s what he did. In the Gold Cup to start with, and now coming here, he understands the message that nobody has a spot guaranteed. It all comes down to performance. Every game is down to performance.
"Every game gives us new challenges and he understood that. He’s smart, he understands the moment and what he did tonight was big. Not only with his experience and scoring a goal, also he understood in certain moments to chase back, to help defend and do all the work that is necessary on an international level if you want to succeed."
Donovan, in turn, returned a compliment to his coach, who got off to a rough start when he took over the reins two years ago. The U.S. has won 13 of its last 14 matches, including clinching its seventh consecutive World Cup berth, for Brazil 2014.
"I think the best thing he has done is creating lots competition," he said. "So every time you step on the field, you have to perform or you're not going to step on the field the next time. It's not in a pressure way. It's in an accountability way. If you do not do well and not perform, you might not play the next game. So it's been good for everybody to feel that."
No one has to remind Donovan that he takes anything for granted. On Tuesday night, he just qualified for his fourth and perhaps final World Cup, at least as a player. But while he reveled in the accomplishment, he had the wisdom to realize that no one, including himself should slough it off.
Asked whether the game will hold a special place for him, Donovan replied, "Yeah, these games are always fun. I remember the game in 01' in Foxboro, when Joe-Max [Moore] scored the penalty and we qualified. I remember the game in Honduras well when we qualified [in 2009]. These games are fun to be part of. There's no guarantee that you will get this again. I hope everyone appreciates it and enjoys it."
No one might be appreciating it more than Landon Donovan.