After Landon Donovan’s empathic goal at Goodison Park yesterday, he was carried by teammate Jack Rodwell into the corner nearer the crowd so he could receive the plaudits from the fans more directly. That the crowd started chanting USA-USA-USA was not surprising. English supporters have taken up the famous cheer to celebrate whenever an American player endears themselves to the local fans. What was surprising is that the crowd was led in the cheer by Everton captain and English international Phil Neville.
Donovan’s success at Everton, which capped off his last game at Goodison with that goal and a terrific assist to set up Jack Rodwell’s goal, is multi-layered. American fans have long known that Donovan’s combination of speed and technical ability had no match in the States. While David Beckham may have had the international spotlight shining on him this past season in MLS, it was Donovan who had driven the Galaxy within a penalty kick of the MLS Championship in 2009. “Big fish in small pond” had been the Donovan rap for a long time. But could Donovan be a big fish in the shark tank that is the EPL – arguably the fastest and toughest league in world?
To be truthful, the odds were against it. Great players from great leagues usually take six months to adapt to the pace and style of England. There is a long list of players (Schevchenko, Veron, Deco, just to name a few) who were thought to be superstars and never adapted to England. With Donovan’s loan spell penciled in for just 75 days and critical games against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal falling in that window, there was no time to get used to the water. Donovan just had to dive in and start swimming.
And swim he did. Beyond the solid stats (three assists and two goals in eight league games) is the simple observation that Everton looked quicker and smoother with Donovan in the line-up. Donovan’s loan has coincided with Everton’s best spell of the season – and perhaps for the past several seasons. Victories over Chelsea, ManU, and City and an unlucky draw against Arsenal have seen Everton move through the most treacherous part of its schedule like an army on the march. Today’s destruction of Hull means that Donovan will leave Merseyside helping Everton get three points every time he stepped on the Goodison pitch.
And the crown at Goodison has taken to Donovan as one of their own. Facebook groups begging that he stay at Everton have attracted thousands of members. The Toffee fans voted him the player of the month January. After his goal, once the USA-USA chants subsided, they were replaced with chants of “Sign him up, sign him up!”
Given today’s performance, few in England can question why Donovan is so popular. Americans playing in England have been respected at times, but that respect has usually sounded a little patronizing. Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna and John Harkes have always been thought of as “industrious” players, which is a nice way of saying that they needed commitment and perseverance to make up for their lack of technical ability. Nobody who watched Donovan’s goal and assist today can doubt his technical skills. Both were one-touch actions off his laces that sent the ball back in the opposite direction from where it came with precision, pace and in such a way that left the defense helpless.
So, what now for Donovan? Clearly, he wants to stay, and Everton wants to keep him. While extending the loan remains a possibility, unless the current labor dispute between the MLS and its players blows up this week, that would seem to be unlikely. The great mystery in all of this is the new contract Donovan signed with the Galaxy last fall. At the time, Donovan said that going on loan in the January transfer window was an important part of the new contract, but left unsaid was whether there was a clause in the contract about a purchase should that loan be successful. There is thought to be language that would allow Donovan to be sold at a certain valuation, but what that number is and whether the transfer window needs to open to accept that bid are unknown.
However, whatever the contract says, in soccer when a player wants to go to a bigger club and the bigger club wants him, all contractual barriers can be overcome with money. Thanks to the sales of Jolene Lescott and Andy Johnson, Everton have profited by over £28 million in the transfer market the last two seasons. With the price for Donovan rumored to be at £6-10 million, the Toffees may very well have the funds available to snatch the American. If so, Donovan’s wave from the center circle at the end of the game may be more “See you later” as opposed to “Farewell.”