All of the headlines and analysis over the course of the last three weeks has been about how Landon Donovan has forced his way back into the United States starting XI with his performances against lesser competition and the Costa Rican “B” side (or in Honduras’ case almost a “C” side) in the Gold Cup.
The narrative that has been written states Donovan is still one of the most influential players for the US Men’s National Team and must start in remaining World Cup qualifiers and next summer in Brazil. While that narrative has been crafted without the type of critical analysis needed to come to such a conclusion given the poor level of competition, let me offer a countering view. Though I preface this by stating the established narrative may very well play out.
On Sunday, Donovan again struggled in a big game, and since 2006 more often than not the former USMNT talisman has gone missing on the big occasions. In the current US men’s national team, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Jermaine Jones all have a more positive and consistent influence on proceedings for the national team.
No question exists that Donovan’s Gold Cup was largely positive until Sunday but simply shoving Graham Zusi out of the way is not justified based on performances on home soil against the likes of Guatemala, Belize, Cuba and El Salvador.
In this qualifying cycle, the Sporting Kansas City winger has shown great quality and resolve in matches against the top CONCACAF sides sporting their top selection of players. He has proven with his daring runs and excellent crosses that he belongs in the 4-2-3-1 formation Jürgen Klinsmann has been favoring.
That would leave the other wing where Eddie Johnson, perhaps the most influential attacking player for the USMNT in the last three Gold Cup games plays. Both Zusi and Johnson played an important role in the perfect qualifying haul for the United States in June. The United States won all four June matches including a spectacular 4-3 victory in Washington against Germany to celebrate the US Soccer Federation Centennial. Both players showed the quality, commitment and consistency demonstrated in recent qualifiers.
If Donovan isn’t going to start on either flank, he certainly isn’t going to replace Clint Dempsey in the center of the pitch right behind Jozy Altidore either. Klinsmann can use the August friendly in Bosnia to tinker with things but when qualifying resumes in September he’d be best served to simply pick up where the “A” team left off, with the same midfield. Donovan can certainly serve as an impact substitution but should not start the September qualifiers.
What happens after September when the USA presumably will clinch qualification is another matter entirely. But at this point all Donovan has earned is a chance with the “A” team again, not an assured position as a starter. To give him a starting spot at this moment would displace either a deserving Zusi or Johnson.
Landon Donovan showed character, spirit and spunk in his return to the USMNT this summer. Still, his position is not set in stone. He needs to prove his ability to influence matches against top level competition before being brought right back into the side.