To hear the crowd chanting, “USA!”, “USA!” every time the American Landon Donovan set up to take a corner kick, somebody passing by a television set might’ve thought the US Men’s National Team was playing in Los Angeles’ Home Depot Center or Giants Stadium in New York. Fans of US soccer know, however, that US. games in US stadiums are dominated by Americans wearing European team jerseys and fans rooting for the other team.
Not so in England.
Donovan started his second game for the top-flight English team Everton and with his smart play and dogged determination, the Yank earned a “job well done” slap-on-the-back from his teammates and a full stadium round of applause from the Merseyside fans as he walked off the field.
Donovan played the right midfield position, anchoring Everton’s core. The midfield – the players who play between the defense and the offense – are the point guards. Like Allen Iverson, they control the tempo of the game, pass distribution, and by the runs they make, the form of their team. They must see the game, the multiple matrices, and the possibilities. They must understand their teammates’ abilities, and they must be able to make the hard, punishing runs that stretch the opponent’s defense and the must track back to help shut down attacks. They run the most of anyone on the field, averaging between seven and nine miles a game and they get banged up the most as they fight for balls launched in the air.
The English Premier League, with its emphasis on strength and physicality, is an unforgiving test of a player’s physical resiliency and mental strength. Donovan has shown he has what it takes.
It hasn’t always been so. Without doubt, Landon is one of the greatest soccer players to come out of the US, currently rivaled only by his Everton teammate goalkeeper, Tim Howard. And without a doubt, Donovan is one of the few players who is able to single-handedly change the course of an MLS game. But his critics have argued that he is soft, tentative and immature, allowing himself to be ruled by a keen sense of perceived slights.
Fans of US soccer are a proud bunch who know their sport is considered inferior to that of their European counter-parts and they’re not okay with it. When the 23-year-old Donovan was picked up by Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga – a top team in one of the top leagues in the world – it was the first chance for a US superstar in European soccer. When he failed to earn a regular lineup spot, claimed homesickness, packed his bags and went home, some disappointed fans nicknamed him “Landycakes.”
But often developing fortitude is a process of getting knocked down, realizing you’re still alive, and wanting to get back up. On Saturday, Donovan made his home debut against Manchester City and showed his growth at the opening whistle by hustling down the right side and winning a throw-in for his side. At 20 minutes, after a one-two with Louis Saha, Donovan tore into the area with the ball, and attempted to chip the ball over the oncoming goalkeeper. His shot drifted wide. A few minutes later, Donovan made another run and took a shot. A flying block was required to stop it.
Throughout the game Landon showed a good link-up understanding with the French striker and while the American notionally was playing the right, in reality he roamed across the front line, disrupting Man City’s defense, and took the majority of the corners, swinging the ball in deep, most often finding the powerful heading force of Fellaini.
Up one to nothing, Everton started the second half with the same energy and strategy they had in the first. When the City goalie passed the ball to one of his defenders, the Everton front line and wing midfielders tore after them, shutting down any attempt to pass the ball into the midfield. The City defense was forced to pass to another defender or back to the goalie only to have another Everton player immediately on him. The relentless nature of Everton won the respect of their fans and when, in the 49th minute, Donovan battled down the right and was called for a foul, the crowd applauded his effort.
The rest of the game settled out the same way, with Everton’s blend of pace and aerial power proving more than City’s defense could handle. Up two-nothing and with the game in the 90th minute, David Moyes, Everton’s coach, replaced Donovan. A nice touch by his new coach, it gave the American a chance to walk off the field in front of the home crowd. The fans responded to Landon’s impressive performance by giving him a standing ovation.