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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

As Landon Donovan goes, so goes the U.S. team

Given free rein, midfielder has become one of the best in the world

September 13, 2009|GRAHAME L. JONES

Millions of dollars are being spent on developing players who, it is hoped, will make the United States increasingly competitive on soccer's world stage.

It's not money wasted, but there might be a quicker, more effective way.

Simply print a poster of Landon Donovan and have every youngster who has ever laced up a pair of soccer boots paste it on his bedroom wall. Better yet, mail every one of them a Donovan career highlights video.

No amount of coaching can replace a flesh-and-blood example, even if that example is seen only on film.

How indispensible is the Galaxy midfielder? Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer, was asked that question the other day.

"Where would some top world-class teams be without their key player?" Gulati replied.

"I was at the 1986 World Cup. It was the first one I went to. Argentina wasn't playing in the final without the guy playing in midfield. I'm not comparing Landon to [Diego] Maradona.

"He's a very, very important player. He's a very special player. I think it's impossible to overstate the importance Landon brings to our program and to this team."

The U.S. is poised to advance to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. One more qualifying victory should do the trick. It would be Donovan's third World Cup.

Chances are, there will be at least one more to come. After all, if David Beckham can play for England at age 35 in 2010, there is no reason Donovan can't play for the U.S. at age 32 when Brazil 2014 rolls around.

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In the beginning

It hardly seems possible that a decade has passed since Donovan came home to California from the 1999 Under-17 World Cup in New Zealand with the tournament's most-valuable-player trophy.

In November, the U.S. again sets off to compete in the Under-17 World Cup, this one being played in Nigeria. Coach Wilmer Cabrera, a former Colombian international, can only hope to find the next Donovan somewhere on the U.S. roster.

It's unlikely though. The 1999 team, coached by John Ellinger, was a very special one. In addition to Donovan, the squad featured future World Cup players DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu, along with a string of future MLS players.

But Donovan was the standout, and it was not coaching alone that got him there. It was desire, love of the game and a keen soccer brain.

Much to the credit of U.S. national team Coach Bob Bradley, Donovan these days is being allowed free range on the field, within reason.

"Bob gives me a lot of freedom to do what I do offensively, but it's not without the responsibility of helping defensively," Donovan said. "So I try to make plays where I can defensively, and offensively I kind of go where I need to go to find the game."

Bradley, who is 33-14-5 since taking over from Bruce Arena after the 2006 World Cup, is as much student as coach.

"I've learned that there's probably no one who watches more games, who spends more time working at what he does," Donovan said. "I think he has an appreciation for the history of soccer, but he also is constantly watching games and evolving the way he thinks and the way he does things. It's worked very well for us.

"Bob is generally very organized and structured in everything he does, but he allows our creative players to do the things they're good at. So when you have a base like that that's solid defensively, and then you let guys who are more creative do what they're good at, it's a good mix."

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Evolution of a playmaker

Turning Donovan from an out-and-out goal scorer into a provider for front-running forwards Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies has transformed the U.S. star.

He is a more complete player now, more focused, more aware of his role and, if anything, even more dangerous. He created all three goals in the recent World Cup qualifying victories over El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago.

Playing wide left, but with freedom to switch flanks or to move inside when he wants, Donovan is difficult for opponents to track. He is enjoying the role.

"I like it," he said. "It came about, I guess, in the Honduras game in Chicago before we went to the Confederations Cup. I think having that game and then having five games in a row playing in that position at a high level against very good teams I just got comfortable with it.

"The biggest part -- and I'm still learning this as evidenced by the Mexico game -- is making sure in certain situations how to defend properly. But I like being able to face the defense, run at people, attack people, and I also like having two real forwards ahead of me that I can get the ball to so that they can do what they do."

In the El Salvador match, Donovan's pinpoint free kick from the right allowed Clint Dempsey to score on a diving header. Then, Donovan's well-timed cross from the left set up a headed goal by Altidore.

"I'm trying to put the ball in a dangerous area, and then it's their job to get on the end of it," Donovan said.

Against Trinidad and Tobago, his soccer smarts and vision came into play as he cut back a pass from which Ricardo Clark scored the game winner.

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