The United States began their Gold Cup campaign last night in somewhat memorable fashion with a 6-1 thrashing of an overwhelmed Belize squad. There were a number of “winners” from the game (see: Wondolowski, Chris), but the real takeaway was a sublime performance from Landon Donovan and all that that entails for a suddenly plucky U.S. team looking toward next summer.
There has been a lot of chatter about Donovan’s ability, age, passion, and so forth. His lack of inclusion to this point in World Cup qualifying is seen as a message from Klinsmann, and as so often is the case, the expression “out of sight, out of mind” began to apply.
For Klinsmann and fans alike, it is both understandable and excusable to be turned off when our hero seems so uninterested in holding the reins we have bestowed upon him. We expect our superstar athletes to be maniacally driven to win. Failure is acceptable, but wavering enthusiasm, apparently, is not. Insert your favorite Dark Knight-ism here.
For the life of me, though, I cannot remember the part of the film where Graham Zusi replaced our fallen hero.
This is most definitely not a Zusi slam piece. I praised Zusi’s movement and crosses (LINKS) during the last set of World Cup qualifiers, and he proved to be a valuable asset in the absence of Donovan. But since Zusi’s assist against Jamaica a little over a month ago, the talk has shifted from “Who will fill in for Donovan?” to “How will Donovan ever break back into the starting lineup?”, culminating in some super sub talk on a few of the pre- and post-game shows.
Let us all pretend this was a never a discussion.
In his first competitive match for his country since 2012, Landon Donovan reasserted his claim to the number 10 jersey, putting on a dazzlingly diverse showcase of skills from every part of the pitch. (Yes, it was against a terrible team, but that has not stopped anyone from anointing Sir Christopher Wondolowski over the past two games.) It was almost as though Donovan heard the cries that he would not provide the same service as Zusi from wide right, yet there he was in the first half, swinging balls in from the right:
If that was everything Donovan contributed last night, his experience alone would justify starting him at either outside spot, assuming Dempsey and Altidore are locked into the starting XI at their current positions. He may not be faster than Johnson or Zusi (though he probably is), but Donovan is direct with the ball, rarely takes a bad touch, and is never out of position. Actually, the original misconception that Donovan is not the type of player to swing balls in comes from the fact that when he does cross the ball from out wide, he typically picks people out with passes on the ground or low driven balls.
While Belize proved to be little more than stat fodder to help Donovan found the 50/50 Club (goals/assists) for U.S. Soccer, their extremely sagging defensive shape inadvertently revealed why the “A” team will need him so badly against stronger opponents.
As I have written previously, the U.S. relies heavily on spreading the ball wide to create enough space in the middle for Altidore and Dempsey to work. Belize, in recognition of just how overmatched they were, dropped deep into their own box in an attempt to clog up the outside-in attack.
Kyle Beckerman solved the puzzle when he swung an early ball in to Wondolowski for the second goal, opening things up considerably by not allowing Belize to establish their defense within their own goal mouth.
So far, the U.S. have had plenty of space to be effective in the wide channels. But in the same way they do this to create room in the middle, against a better side they will have to attack the middle to create space out wide. In football and basketball, it is often referred to as “keeping defenders honest”. The same holds true in soccer.
Donovan makes direct, penetrating runs to the middle of the field. Whether he collects the ball in the middle (as he has in the past) or out wide (as he most likely will in the future), he has always been a master of pushing the tempo, drawing defenders, and then dishing the ball wide for the overlapping run.
This is one of the final pieces missing for the U.S. attack. Jermaine Jones and Geoff Cameron have shown a desire to make such runs, but they lack the ball handling, precision, and field vision of Donovan, and the result is generally a wild, out-of-control plunge forward followed by a turnover.
The U.S. have demonstrated that they intend to play an aggressive, dynamic style of offense, with all of their outside backs not named “Brad Evans” flying up and down the wing. The next step for them is to introduce a genuinely capable and versatile playmaker, someone who will slice through defenses and exploit the space and talent around him. That appeared to be a lost cause until Landon Donovan reentered the fray.
He may not be the hero you wanted, but he is the hero that the U.S. will need heading to Brazil next summer.