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Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Donovan's loan raises questions aplenty

Steve Davis

The first shoe fell on Wednesday regarding Landon Donovan as the L.A. Galaxy announced a new four-year deal for the high-value attacker.

Bruce Arena's arrival 16 months ago created a stabler platform at the Home Depot Center, allowing a happier Donovan to sign up for the longer hitch.

Set to drop shortly is the other shoe, one that is more consequential in the short term as a 10-week loan arrangement with England's Everton appears set for announcement anytime.

Donovan's future in MLS now seems secure, but the impending stay at Goodison Park will be the real talker for U.S. Soccer supporters. Indeed, Donovan reiterated Wednesday that the Galaxy's blessing in efforts to test himself in such loan arrangements was a condition of the new deal.

In securing a 10-week lease to Everton -- Arena confirmed Wednesday that it's likely to happen -- the slashing attacker will have finally landed in a marquee spot arranged for success. In David Moyes, Donovan finds a manager who has successfully integrated Americans into his lineup before. He finds a bedraggled team in need of just what he can supply, a generous burst of attacking verve. Perhaps most importantly, Donovan has another opportunity to demonstrate his ability at the highest level, partnering with U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard to reinforce the depleted ranks of Liverpool's "other team."

Here, then, are the top five discussion points regarding the fast-moving swirl of events and his performance in the hurly-burly EPL -- queries that will presumably be answered in the high-stakes months to come.

1. Is this the best thing for the U.S. World Cup efforts? This simply can't be seen as a detriment to Donovan's big-picture development. To be challenged and tested in one of the world's toniest associations certainly presents a worthy challenge -- especially for someone who already has done all he can do in Major League Soccer.

But an immeasurably important trip to South Africa looms. A kind draw breathed fresh hope that the United States can survive long enough to perhaps rattle the elimination rounds. For Donovan personally, he'll be 28, snugly into the pro athlete's sweet spot, old enough to know, still young enough to do.

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So much of the U.S. fate next summer comes down to Howard and Donovan providing something special. Bob Bradley's bunch could probably even absorb a Howard injury, as Brad Friedel could ride heroically to the rescue.

Not so with Donovan -- and there's the one downside to this Everton adventure. An injury to Donovan would absolutely cripple the American ability to break down defenses on anything other than set-piece chances. (And since Donovan is the first-choice set piece delivery specialist, those efforts would suffer, too.)

Donovan's 148 pounds (on a 5-foot-8 frame) will be tossed around by the big defenders who patrol EPL grounds. Donovan is anything but brittle, having proved hardily injury-resistant. Indeed, he never has suffered a serious injury. Still, the chances of injury or debilitating overuse sprains and strains do exist.

2. Will this finally quiet his detractors? The big gripe for his legion of critics is that Donovan shrank when previously afforded higher-level opportunities. He was once an unhappy teenager in Leverkusen, a small town along Germany's western edges; he was the youngest player at the time in U.S. Soccer history to sign professionally overseas.

Donovan made one more attempt at Bayer in 2005, but preferred the U.S. lifestyle and soccer scene. That was his major crime for some jurists, who felt Donovan could truly reach his potential only by steeling himself in more demanding environments.

Well, here it is, Donovan's next chance to stand steadfast in the heavyweight division. And no one should think that Everton's tenuous standing (15th in the Premiership, uncomfortably close to the drop zone) subtracts pressure from the arrangement. Anyone who knows the ways of the global game understands the tension involved in relegation avoidance. Games at the bottom of the table are every bit as vacuum-packed with meaning as those at the top.

Suffice to say, the pressure to perform will be immense at Goodison Park, and Donovan can prove a lot by rising to the occasion.

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3. What if he succeeds? Donovan will surely have a chance to ensconce himself immediately into Everton lore if he can help the Toffees navigate a murderers' row of a winter schedule. Everton's slate is stacked and packed during his 10 weeks in England's port city.

He'd be eligible to play on Jan. 2 in the team's FA Cup contest against Carlisle. Up next is a trip to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal. From there, it's a return to Goodison to face Manchester City's high-value cast. Following another pair of EPL contests, February opens across town at Anfield in the city's sharp-edged derby, followed by a home match against Chelsea.

There are also matches in the Europa League, a home date against Manchester United and a trip to North London to face Tottenham. That's a roll call of opposition that would surely jingle the keys of anyone who enjoys EPL.

So the question, really, becomes this: What if Donovan absolutely tears it up? Is there a chance this short-term loan turns into an outright purchase?

It could still happen, although Wednesday's announcement of the new four-year agreement certainly reduces the chances. Everton (or anyone, for that matter) could still attempt to purchase his contract from MLS, but the new deal provides essential leverage for the league. Donovan previously had about 18 months remaining on his contract; the threat of an impending free transfer made it a buyer's market where Donovan was concerned. No more, however, given Wednesday's development.

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4. What if he doesn't succeed? Other than injury, there is one other downside to all this: the chance that things go sideways and it all knocks the wind out of Donovan's confidence.

We all know that Donovan can dismantle MLS defenses. He has a lengthy registry of awards and championships to prove it. So, it's been years since Donovan was forced to wonder, "Am I good enough?"

Even last year in a short loan spell with German giants Bayern Munich, Donovan didn't perform poorly. Politics and the club's long-term needs quashed interest in a longer-term partnership, but he achieved enough to prove something to himself, at least.

If Donovan fails to gain solid footing at Everton, he could be staring down the demons of self-doubt for the first time. And there's a double whammy here, since any stumbling would occur in England, home to the very players he'll face right off the bat in World Cup 2010.

5. What about the Galaxy? The World Cup is peerless in terms of soccer competitions, as we all know, and EPL is a big boy on the world soccer block. Talk of MLS endeavors seems quaint in comparison. But at some point, obviously, Major League Soccer does matter.

The way it stands to work, Donovan would report to Everton sometime before the year's end. He'll return to the Galaxy in mid-March, in plenty of time to open Major League Soccer's 15th season.

So, short of injury, this really shouldn't affect MLS matters. That's good news for the Galaxy, which will be without David Beckham until mid-July at the earliest. Donovan carried the Galaxy offense last spring in Beckham's absence. Bottom line, the Galaxy would fall perilously far back in the standings by July next year without Donovan; as it is, Los Angeles is no playoff team without the current MLS Most Valuable Player.

Donovan said Wednesday he was committed to the club, now that it seems committed to winning. "After a lot of thinking, a lot of soul-searching, this is where I want to be," he said, before referencing the club's formerly aimless ways. "This year has turned the way I thought about this franchise. Candidly, a year ago, I would not have made this decision.

"This team is stable now," he said. "As athletes, you only have so many years to do things. The thought of not being in a winning environment, the thought of not being completely happy professionally was scary. Bruce has completely turned this thing around and made it a place where players want to be."

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Dailysoccerfix.com, and can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.


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