Analyst Extra: Donovan as playmaker still off the charts

Landon Donovan - Analyst

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About a year ago, I wrote this piece, titled “Will there be life after Landon?”

I took a specifically US-tinged look at it, since the effects of Donovan’s absence on the international scene were (and have continued to be) profound. I actually quoted Nietzsche, and after a year's worth of ruminating on it, I'm willing to take it a step further and dig up some Lovecraft or something, because a US national team without Donovan isn't just staring into the abyss it's staring straight into madness. He's irreplaceable, a once-in-a-generation talent. And the interview he gave Tuesday to ESPNFC’s Roger Bennett is yet another reminder that this generation is approaching its end.

The good news for Jurgen Klinsmann is that Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi has stepped up and at least partially filled Donovan’s shoes for the Red, White and Blue. But even with Zusi having a great year for a great team in MLS, he’s simply not a direct replacement for LD. No one is.

The Opta numbers from this year show as much. In the chart below, I took a look at every MLS player who’s logged at least 1,000 minutes and created at least 35 chances from the run of play. And it is staggering, in terms of pure playmaking ability, how much of a gap there is between Donovan and everyone else:

Player Chances created (from open play) Big Chance created Passing Accuracy, Final third Minutes Minutes Per chance
Donovan, Landon 64 20 71.24 2,166 33.84
Keane, Robbie 54 11 71.01 2,429 44.98
Kamara, Kei 51 9 59.7 2,781 54.52
Nyarko, Patrick 50 17 69.82 2,666 53.32
Gaven, Eddie 47 6 75.35 2,900 61.70
Felipe Martins 45 17 67.72 2,652 58.93
Zusi, Graham 45 15 66.67 2,698 59.95
Nguyen, Lee 42 6 71.04 2,386 56.80
Espinoza, Roger 42 5 65.28 2,275 54.16
Johnson, Ryan 40 4 51.08 2,700 67.50
Morales, Javier 39 16 73.37 2,118 54.30
Rosales, Mauro 39 15 61.6 1,949 49.97
Le Toux, Sébastien 38 5 63.61 2,506 65.94
Feilhaber, Benny 36 9 61.21 2,057 57.13
Wondolowski, Chris 36 5 58.57 2,723 75.63
Nagbe, Darlington 36 2 80.59 2,687 74.63
Davis, Brad 35 8 76.11 2,495 71.28
Rivero, Martín 35 5 69.49 2,507 71.62
Songo'o, Franck 35 4 64.62 1,732 49.48

Obviously, leading the league in chances created from open play by almost 20 percent tells a big chunk of the story. But context is fun, and for said context I'd invite you to look all the way to the right at the "minutes per chance" column, and bow down to math.

Donnovan is insanely efficient. He creates just under three chances a game; only one other player in the league (Robbie Keane, which probably says something about their chemistry) creates as many as two. Guys who are having Best XI caliber seasons — Mauro Rosales, Felipe and Brad Davis come to mind — aren't within shouting distance of LD. 

And the "Big Chances" stat, measuring chances created that absolutely, positively should be goals, is even more telling. Donovan leads that category for the second year in a row despite the fact that he doesn't take LA's set pieces. Put him over 150 dead balls, and that number would increase by at least five or six.

This isn't to say that stats tell the whole story; soccer analytics is still more art than science.

But because we've gotten so used to Donovan since he burst onto the scene in the 1999 U-17 World Cup, it seems like a large segment of the audience has forgotten just how great he is. These stats should serve as a reminder.

Anyway, as a grateful US national team and MLS fan, I hope like hell he decides to wait until at least 35 or 36 to pursue that broadcasting career he talked about. After all, he's still the very best at the job he has right now.

Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com