Sunday, January 20, 2008
Donovan makes history against Sweden
CARSON, Calif. -- Many record-setters confess to a feeling of relief when a mark finally gets set. When Landon Donovan stepped up to take a penalty kick versus Sweden, he was well aware that he could eclipse Eric Wynalda to become the top scorer for the U.S. national team.
He buried the kick to the keeper's left to secure a 2-0 win for the U.S and the record (assuming FIFA denies the Danish soccer federation's recent protest that Denmark's 3-1 loss to the United States on Jan. 20, 2007 -- in which Donovan scored -- did not count as a full international).
After the match, though, it became clear that scoring was merely a step for Donovan in his larger mission: to do all the little things necessary to help his team achieve better results.
"I wouldn't classify [the record] as important, but it's something that I can be proud of," Donovan said.
There are two asterisks detractors of Donovan immediately will point out about his record. He has scored eight of his 35 goals on penalties. Also, his decision to remain in Major League Soccer undoubtedly has boosted his scoring total simply by allowing him to participate in more matches than players who have commitments to clubs in other countries.
These are quibbles, however. Thirty-five goals for a player who is 25 is still an impressive and virtually unassailable feat by U.S. standards. What ultimately might mark Donovan's progress, though, is how he has realized that he has to contribute much more to the U.S. squad than mere goals.
The obituary on Donovan's relevancy for the national team has been written before -- every so often, and particularly whenever a new player emerges for the U.S. That prods some writers and many fans who consider Donovan a disappointment because he does not play in one of the top leagues abroad to crown the newcomer the squad's new savior, the player who will relegate Donovan to mere supporting status.
That way, the natural order of things -- top players play in Europe -- could be established again for the U.S.
Donovan himself has felt buried under the weight of relentless criticism, none heavier than that aimed in his direction after the national team turned in a disappointing World Cup performance in 2006. Donovan had been counted on to be the team's spark plug, but he had no goals or assists in the Americans' three games in the tournament.
2006 was still on Donovan's mind at the start of 2008.
"In this camp, I've moved further along my path towards resurrection, because 2006 was tough," Donovan said the evening before the match versus Sweden. "Last year was better, but that kind of got lost, with as bad a season as the Galaxy had. I felt that, from game to game, I had one of my best years. I'm still moving along that path, and as long as I continue that, I think the sky is the limit."
It's that kind of optimism that keeps Donovan performing at a high level even when continually confronted by the conventional wisdom that playing in MLS is holding him back.
It's not just pundits who need to be convinced of Donovan's ability to deliver. U.S. coach Bob Bradley forced Donovan to prove his worth, not by limiting his playing time -- the versatile midfielder/forward is too valuable for that -- but by taking from him the honor of the captain's armband. That setback forced Donovan to do some soul-searching.
"The more I looked inside, it wasn't something I was earning," Donovan said. "It's not good enough to say, 'I've been here a long time, I have a lot of caps, I should be captain.'"
Instead of sulking, Donovan dedicated himself to working harder and setting a good example for other young players.
"I wish I could play with him more," said forward Jozy Altidore, who at 18 is one of the rising stars for the U.S. team. He praised Donovan's work ethic and skill. "His plays and his moves are really great. You can try stuff with him, and he's always aware."Getting the armband back was the culmination of a quest to improve.
"I worked hard for that," Donovan said. "I was glad and proud that Bob noticed that and rewarded me."
Bradley's faith in Donovan was rewarded from the start of the game. Donovan, a slight player who occasionally has been accused of shying away from physical contact, fouled a Swedish player while battling for the ball in the first minute.
"[Donovan's] all-around contribution to the game was very important for us," Bradley said. "He helped set the tone early with his aggressiveness and his movement."Throughout the match, Donovan controlled the ball well and opened up options for teammates with his passes. It wasn't a superlative performance, but it was an efficient, professional one. Setting the record was part of the job. It's a tangible example of Donovan's renewed sense of purpose. Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.