Donovan Back on Track

Monday, April 25, 2011 | View Comments
- Jason Davis

It was worrying, both for the LA Galaxy and the USMNT, that Landon Donovan was sidelined at all. The Galaxy said it was a knee ailment that was keeping him out of three league matches, the result of a knock he picked up on the club’s trip to Philadelphia. Considering Donovan’s hectic and near non-stop schedule over the past few years, it was understandable that there was speculation something else was bothering him. It would actually make some sense if he was finally breaking down after playing so much soccer. Between matches, training, and travel, Donovan might have been the hardest working player in the world in 2010.

And Donovan didn’t assuage fears with his early MLS play or his contributions to the National Team over two games in March. Against Argentina and Paraguay, Donovan was a shadow of his usual self. His touch was lacking. He covered less ground than expected. His passing was off, and when he found himself in a good position, there was a dullness to decisions. On the league front, his scoring drought reached unprecedented levels for a player of his stature. Doubts began to creep in about Donovan’s future. Maybe the ugliest of words for a player who relies on speed and fitness - fatigue - was whispered.

There are only so many miles in the engine of any athlete. Donovan’s odometer is well beyond six digits. At some point, his skills will begin to break down. Instead of being a solid bet to be the best player on the field any time he takes it, he’ll regress to the point of solid pro.

Not that anyone - even the most ardent pessimist - was writing him off.

It’s a good thing too, considering that Donovan returned for the Galaxy on Saturday night and put on a virtuoso performance against the Portland Timbers. The rest, whether it was knee-related or just a nod to fatigue, had clearly done him well. Donovan didn’t just play well, though his quality was evident, he broke a scoring drought that had persisted since September of 2010.

From Scott French’s story at ESPNLosAngeles:

“I could care less about scoring,” said Donovan, who had missed the previous three games with a minor knee injury. “I want to win. I'm not as much of a scorer anymore. I think you guys have seen both with the U.S. team and this year, that part of my game has not been the same as it was when I was younger, but I want to win, and it feels good to win.”

Donovan has proved time and time again that he’ll do whatever he needs to do to help his team win. In the past, that meant scoring goals, and while that’s still a large part of his game, he clearly has other contributions to make. Donovan is so valuable to both the Galaxy and the National Team not just because he can score, but because he can play provider for 75 minutes then grab the opportunity to put the ball in the net in a flash. See Saturday with his late run to connect with Juan Pablo Angel’s pinpoint cross, or last June, when he took it upon himself to slam the ball into the net from a tight angle against Slovenia. That’s the Donovan both teams are counting on showing up when the games count.

Galaxy fans should be elated, while National Team fans can exhale. Donovan is “back” if he was ever really gone in the first place. Injury concerns are no longer that, since Donovan should no ill effects this weekend. If he’s himself, whatever that means these days, he remains a critical part of success for club and country.

Because neither is ready to move on without him. There is no successor lined up for the National Team despite a few intriguing prospects, and the Galaxy are built around him to the point of being disturbingly toothless when he’s not playing. With the Gold Cup coming and everyone in the region set to take it seriously (as certain teams do only once every two years) Donovan will again be asked to carry a heavy load.

Donovan is still marvelously speedy player by almost any standard. But as he intimated in his post-game comments on Saturday, his game is slowly become more about directing traffic and setting up his teammates than it is about scoring. That should mean less reliance on his speed; if he can fully manage the transition as his high-mileage legs slow down, Donovan could avoid the rapid decline so prevalent with players like him. Even when Donovan isn’t the quickest player on the field anymore, his more cerebral game will allow him to be effective for years to come. The goals may taper off (though he’ll always be good for a few), but his overall influence shouldn’t.

That’s good news for two teams not ready yet ready to move on without him.

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