I’ve spent the last hour trying to figure out how to start a column about the future of the US national team without Landon Donovan. And all I’ve come up with is a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, an avowed nihilist – which should say something about the Yanks’ chances of success once Landon does hang ‘em up.
Anyway, take it away, Friedrich:
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.”
That’s pretty much what the prospect of a US team without Donovan smells like at the moment. We’ll all get a good look over the next few days as the US face down Honduras and Ecuador and, for one of the few times over the past decade, Landon will be a spectator like the rest of us.
In the short term, we can throw a blanket over what we see should it be unpleasant. After all, Donovan’s only 29 years old. He’s a fitness freak, he’s avoided major injuries throughout his career and has always had a knack for dodging crunching tackles. And he’s given no hint that he’s going to retire from the international game any time soon.
But sooner or later, he is going to retire. Or become less effective, or be out for more than a few weeks with a quadriceps injury. Sooner or later, there will have to be Life After Landon.
And that’s when the US team will come to the precipice to stare into the abyss, and the question will be put forth: What now?
It’s not an unprecedented question in soccer history. Every team has had to replace its best player at one point or another. Countries like Germany or Brazil can skip from Ballack to Schweinsteiger, or Ronaldinho to Robinho to Neymar, without missing a beat.
But the US aren’t Germany or Brazil, and wish and hope as the fanbase might, none of the current crop of US youngsters have shown to be of a level to replace Donovan. He has 46 goals and 47 assists in his 138 games in the red, white and blue, numbers that blow every other attacker in US history out of the water and somehow still manage to not do him justice. He’s been doing his thing so effectively for so long that the mind fairly reels at replacing him.
The combination of first touch, blinding pace and the ability to make decisions at speed is a rare package, and the US naturally built the last 10 years around that skill set. That’s what got the team to the finals of the Confederations Cup in 2009, what got an even more limited side out of their World Cup group a year later, and what gave US fans the ultimate scalp way back in the 2002 World Cup’s round of 16.
So when the day comes, it can’t be about replacing him in a one-for-one switch. There’s nobody who can do what he’s done. As promising as Brek Shea and Juan Agudelo are, neither screams “50 goals and 50 assists before it’s all over” every time they take the field.
Instead, it has to be about a tactical adjustment.
The US coach – whether it’s Jurgen Klinsman or his successor, or his successor’s successor – will have to close ranks somewhat on the midfield. It makes sense to pull an extra man into the center of the pitch to give the US a bit more ability to combine, and a chance to become more solid in defense.
It also plays to the strengths of Timothy Chandler and Michael Bradley, two of the most promising candidates to become the post-Donovan focal point. Bradley currently plays on the right side of the “3” in Chievo Verona’s 4-3-1-2, acting as a de facto extra central midfielder by pinching in and leaving the flank wide open for overlapping runs.
Chandler, it so happens, has already established himself as one of the Bundesliga’s premier overlapping fullbacks, a guy who can get up-and-down the right flank with a sprinter’s speed and still put a cross on a dime. He doesn’t have the pull-backs and one-twos Donovan has had in his bag of tricks since day one, but Chandler does have time to learn.
But who to play as the “1” will be the big question. The “1” is crucial since that’s the enganche, the player who’ll command attention enough to give Bradley and Chandler room to work.
Guys like Clint Dempsey and Benny Feilhaber have been tried there, and each is more effective on the wing – and neither’s much younger than Donovan, anyway. Stuart Holden and José Torres are only comfortable deeper in the midfield. Sacha Kljestan certainly looks the part for Anderlecht right now, but it looks like Klinsmann will need more than a few months to be convinced.
After that, we slide into youngsters (Luis Gil), the unproven (Nick LaBrocca) or the almost entirely unknown (Charles Renken – seriously, though, remember that name).
In short, there’s no one who really jumps out as the ideal candidate.
But, thankfully, that’s a discussion we can probably hold off on for a while once these two friendlies are in the books. Donovan’s injury is short-term and qualifying is nearly a year away. By then, maybe Kljestan will have convinced, or Gil will be done cooking, or someone else will have staked their claim, and we can all get a better look at the possibilities the future holds.
In the meantime, then, we’re just stealing a glance at the abyss. It may be staring back, but for now, it’s OK to look away.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com.