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Monday, March 28, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: March 20, 3:29 PM UK
No longer the great U.S. hope

Jen Chang

The definition of a conspiracy theory is a clandestine covert action that is not apparent at first glance. With this in mind, Landon Donovan backers are out in full force to defend Donovan's proposed move back to MLS with the L.A. Galaxy (a move that would also result in the Galaxy shipping Carlos Ruiz to FC Dallas).

Rather than recognize that Donovan struggled mightily in his second stay in Germany, conspiracy theorists would have you believe from among the following creative masterpieces to name but a few:

a. That he extricated himself from Leverkusen's ownership to MLS in order to give himself total control over which European team he opts to go to next.

b. That his recent performance against Liverpool in the Champions League (which was dire, and that's being kind) was premeditated to further Leverkusen's disenchantment with him, and possibly save MLS money on any potential transfer fee.

c. That Donovan would have succeeded in Germany if he simply had a coach that believed in him and had given him the opportunity to do so by playing him in his preferred forward spot.

These three theories -- and other such justifications -- are bunk, nonsense or whatever other suitable dismissive adjective one feels like throwing out there.

The fact is that it's becoming more and more clear to ardent fans of U.S. soccer that Donovan simply may not be cut out to be the golden boy that many had hoped he would be.

Donovan has the technical skills and potential to be a world-class player, as he showed in the last World Cup. However, his continuous failure to reach the heights demanded of such expectations since that time (not to mention his consistent inconsistency outside of a MLS setting) leads one to believe he is simply lacking the 'mojo' or unique intangible that sets apart the greats.

A large part of Donovan's problem seems to stem from his often-documented homesickness that affected both his stints in Germany. Donovan is the type of player who thrives on confidence (what player doesn't?) but at the same time is prone to losing it at the drop of a hat. When he's focused, Donovan can dominate a game with his creativity and willingness to run at defenders, but that's not the version we always see. In many games, it's possible to predict whether or not he'll play well based on his first few touches of the ball. A mistake here or there and it seems to put Donovan into a shell from which he rarely recovers.

During the Liverpool game, he actually looked like he was hiding from the ball at times. It wouldn't be the first time Donovan's intangibles were questioned. Current German coach and former national team great Jürgen Klinsmann has also spoken in the past about Donovan's confidence issues. In a 2003 interview, Klinsmann noted that Donovan lacked self-belief.

It's clear that Donovan's confidence is high only when playing in a familiar environment and at home among friends, family and girlfriend. The comfort zone of California is probably the single biggest reason Donovan is a totally different player in MLS than he is in national team or European settings.

Herein lies another part of Donovan's problem - he appears content being a big fish in a little pond. He has often said that it wouldn't bother him if he never played another game in Europe. While there's nothing wrong with wanting to be be close to home, elite players usually have a strong desire to improve their skills against stiffer competition - which would more likely happen if he played overseas.

For a nation still looking for its first world-class superstar, Donovan's seeming lack of desire to leave any kind of global legacy speaks volumes about his capability of becoming the 'messiah' the U.S. needs.

As for whether or not he ever got a fair shake with Leverkusen, there's no doubt he could have been afforded more opportunities during his most recent stint, especially with Robson Ponte out. However, it's not as if the Leverkusen coach can be accused of not giving Donovan a chance - Donovan started Leverkusen's biggest game of the season against Liverpool but withered under the pressure. For Donovan critics, this latest wilt is another shining example of big games where he has failed to perform.

The most disturbing aspect of Donovan's return to MLS is that he is returning so soon after only just joining Leverkusen after the German winter break. Starting roles in any league are rarely handed out; they are earned. Donovan got chances at Leverksen, limited as they were, and he failed to make them count. But instead of staying, proving his doubters wrong and redeeming his reputation in Germany, he's now placed himself in a position to be called a quitter.

His shortcomings on the national team level are apparent as well. Against Mexico on Sunday, he was listless and largely MIA. Even his one contribution to the game, the assist to Eddie Lewis on the lone U.S. goal, came after he made a hash of the initial entry pass from Eddie Johnson. For much of the game he looked tentative, scared and unwilling to run with the ball. He seemed to be almost as in love with the sideways or backwards amounting-to-nothing pass as Claudio Reyna.

After the game, Donovan was quoted as saying, "Coming in at the half the way we were playing, my main concern was let's make sure we don't get blown out."

A loser mentality if ever there was one. Kick a chair, head butt the wall, do something, anything but lay down with a shockingly defeatist attitude in the face of a hardly insurmountable 2-0 deficit. If World Cup qualification weren't enough of a motivation, the fact that small segments of the Mexican crowd were chanting, "Osama! Osama!" should have been enough to stir the patriotic flames inside Donovan -- but clearly they weren't.

One can't lay blame for the Mexico fiasco on Donovan's shoulders entirely, but as the star draw and the perceived marquee player, his failure to perform hurt the U.S. cause tremendously. He'll probably rebound against Guatemala, but he always does in games of lesser magnitude.

That's why it's strange that he's often been tagged the U.S. captain by Bruce Arena - a cynic could argue that this has always been a pure marketing move, as Donovan has yet to display any type of real leadership on the senior level. He's an excellent team player, a solid citizen and can be a potential match-winner in any game for the U.S., but is he really the type of player that can will his teammates to victory in the heat of a hostile environment in the time-honored tradition of players such as Roy Keane or Tony Adams?

Based on the performance against Mexico and his shortcomings in other big games, the evidence suggests otherwise. Granted, he dominates MLS, and yes, he's a proven winner at the MLS level, but it's doubtful he will ever fill the bill as the flag-bearer for U.S. soccer for the next decade. It's time to take a closer look at a player like Eddie Johnson or even DaMarcus Beasley, who has proved so far at PSV this season that U.S. outfield players can indeed cut it at the highest levels of European soccer.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com




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