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Monday, February 15, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: February 19, 7:52 PM UK
Landon Donovan still likely to return to MLS

Steve Davis

In England, media voices cannot sing the praises loudly enough for Landon Donovan and his excellent Everton adventure. The flattery is nothing short of effusive. Truly, can "Sir Landon" be far away?

Such across-the-board appreciation -- deserved, it must be said -- really is a telling and stark contrast to the wildly disparate recognition Donovan gets back home. Yes, there are plenty of supporters who understand how special a player he really is, but there are others who somehow, illogically, dismiss his cupboard full of accomplishment.

You wonder what that misguided lot of Donovan bashers must make of this chorus of celebration from abroad. After all, say what you want about the English brand of soccer, but that country, its media and its legion of fan followers know the sport backward and forward. They know an ace when they see one. They appreciate Donovan's pace, his work rate, his desire to make the extra runs that stretch defenses vertically or horizontally. And they nod approvingly and applaud the technical work that holds it all together.

But all of that is another conversation -- and surely one that will rage on so long as Donovan laces up the cleats.

For now, let's focus on the swirl of success at Everton and where it might take the United States' all-time leading scorer -- a man who could be enshrined as the country's best ever by the time it's over. For all his accomplishment so far Donovan is, after all, just 27 years old. So there is surely more decoration ahead.

His current loan spell at Goodison Park is unfolding handsomely. He immediately claimed a starting position for respected manager David Moyes, debuting with a flourish against title contenders Arsenal at the Emirates. Nothing like easing into your new assignment, eh?

Donovan has made seven appearances so far (six in league play, one in the F.A Cup), assisting the Toffees to a 4-2-1 mark over that stretch. Around spendthrift Goodison Park, that qualifies as a march of glory.

Donovan has a goal and two assists, appearing always as a right midfielder in Everton's 4-4-2. And if a lone strike -- a well-taken, calm finish against Sunderland -- doesn't sound particularly prodigious, remember that Everton is a squad that plays it safe and generally gets the most from a limited number of goals. Consider that only six players on Everton's roster have more than Donovan this year. Heck, if Donovan were to strike for Everton's next three, he'd be tied for second among all their goal scorers.

More than the goals, he's been rock solid throughout. In last week's ballyhooed win over league-leading Chelsea, Donovan received Star Man honors from The Sun, which handed him an 8 (out of 10) rating. Donovan has been entrusted to take corner kicks, and one of them turned into a critical Everton strike.

It all has served to renew chatter about whether Donovan's loan agreement would turn into an outright purchase for Everton. As it is, Liverpool's second side has the American all-time leading scorer only through mid-March. He has planned all along to be in the Los Angeles Galaxy shirt when the league runner-up opens MLS season No. 15 on March 27.

Don't expect all the success and hullabaloo to change a thing. All that magic dust he's sprinkling around Premiership parks and all that fluffy praise is unlikely to alter this reality: The American striker will be on that flight back to the States -- best bet: first class -- come mid-March.

"It is what it is, Landon is here for two months and we have just got to accept that and let's just hope we can get him back for another two months next year," Everton captain Phil Neville said to the Liverpool Daily Post. "He loves living in L.A. and loves playing in the MLS, but we have just got to accept he will not be staying but he has been fantastic for us and let's hope that continues."

Donovan's ability to pursue the loan agreement was a component of the contract he signed late last year, the one set to keep him in MLS through 2013. His plan all along was one of testing himself in England, but returning to California in short order.

There is a chance, of course, that Donovan could be so heartened by his success, so enamored by the fast lane of soccer in the esteemed EPL, that he kicks the tires on a permanent transfer. The reality, however, is that Everton is hardly in a position to make it happen.

Even Moyes doesn't see it happening, as he told reporters last week in the wake of Donovan's big night against Chelsea. "I don't think so. We've said it would just be the loan. ... He has signed a new contract at the Galaxy so I don't think that would happen," the manager said flatly.

Not that he wouldn't want Donovan to stick around, especially with big, influential midfielder Marouane Fellaini now out for an undetermined amount of time. Any extended absence due to the ankle injury suffered last week against Liverpool could significantly downgrade the side's ability to cope with a schedule that hardly gets easier from here.

Before the month is out Everton will face Manchester United at Goodison, Spurs in London and Sporting Lisbon twice in Europa League play.

The reality is that Donovan would surely fetch an MLS record transfer fee. Jozy Altidore established the standard at just under $10 million for his move two years ago to Spain's Villarreal. The economic climate has changed since then, but not so much that MLS wouldn't demand a sum equal to or beyond Altidore's to pry away one of their most valuable marketing forces. Everton probably doesn't have that kind of cash lying around -- certainly not at the moment. There's a better chance Everton could make an aggressive offer this summer, but even that seems unlikely.

There's one other important element to consider in all this: what a longer stay in England could mean for the United States' trip to South Africa. As Donovan and Tim Howard go, so goes the U.S. effort in June.

U.S. national team manager Bob Bradley says for his purposes, where Donovan plays this spring is more or less irrelevant.

"I've mentioned a few times, players go in different directions," Bradley said Saturday from California, where his team is in camp in preparation for a friendly against El Salvador. "And Landon is certainly an example of one of our most important players who has come through MLS. He's had different experiences at different times overseas, and this one has really been a good one for him."

Bradley was in Everton for a few days last week leading up to the high-profile city derby against Liverpool. The U.S. manager spoke with Moyes and got nothing less than what he expected: glowing reports about the way Donovan has been received within the locker room and about the way he has assimilated on the field. So Bradley is clearly pleased that Donovan is having such a grand time. After all, a happy player is certainly a productive one for club and country. But, again, for the purposes of the national team and World Cup, precisely where all this happiness spills forth just doesn't make much difference.

"He's been an important payer during a time when Everton has had a good run of form, so I think that speaks to what Landon is all about," Bradley said. "That experience has been great for him, but I don't think at this point, from a standpoint of the national team, that there's a huge difference in terms of whether he has the opportunity to stay, or whether he uses that experience and comes back that much better into MLS and ready for the World Cup."

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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