CARSON, Calif. — One of the dilemmas always facing the LA Galaxy is where to position Landon Donovan, an issue that's more vital as he hones in on finding full form following his four-month break from the game.
Donovan has spent most of his career at forward but has primarily played on the right side of midfield with the Galaxy since Bruce Arena took charge near the close of the 2008 season. He's capable of changing games from either spot and says he has no preference where he plays, that he merely desires “to play well.”
He's played in both spots this season, often in the same game, and he's been hit-and-miss in both, too: Dynamic and impactful in the 2-0 victory last month over Sporting Kansas City, tentative and ineffective in the 3-1 loss last weekend in Vancouver.
Where can he best help the Galaxy?
“That's not an easy question to answer,” said Arena, whose team takes on the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park on Wednesday (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live). “Depends on how he's feeling, the kind of rhythm he's in as a player, the needs we have as a team, and I've said this a lot of times: We often use Landon to help complement our team, and maybe sometimes he gets the short end of the stick because of that. But he likes playing both positions.”
Donovan can have a greater hand in directing the game from midfield, even when playing wide; he has free reign to do as he chooses, and he likes to pinch “inside more, closer to the action, closer to the goal, closer to the forwards.” He's LA's most able playmaker, and he led MLS with 16 assists in 2010 and has finished second three times, including last year.
“When he's a midfielder, he's very astute [defensively] in terms of knowing positionally where to be and helping the other midfielders when the ball's on the right and the left,” associate head coach Dave Sarachan said. “When we have the ball, his moments of being wide and being dangerous, and also coming inside, from a tactical sense it's a difficult task for the opposing teams to deal with."
Donovan primarily played last year as a forward, where his breakaway speed adds dimension to LA's game. His partnership with Robbie Keane was a chief impetus to LA's midseason turnaround.
“Look at the way we've played together in the last two years,” Keane said. “We made it very difficult for teams. I don't think defenders like playing against us, because we like everything into feet and we're quite sharp and we like a lot of movement and stuff like that.”
Donovan's starting point has much to do with what's available elsewhere. The Galaxy have a good group of young forwards, and Arena has tried to get playing time for all of them. Jose Villarreal is a worthy first-choice forward. There are fewer distinct options in midfield, although they include Sean Franklin, Hector Jimenez, Michael Stephens and Mike Magee.
Donovan wants to make an impact wherever he is.
“It's been a little easier to be in midfield [since returning] because the game's in front of me a lot,” he said. “Playing as a forward, you're back is to the goal, so you've got to be sharper, you have to be able to see more of the field more quickly. And sometimes that's more difficult. But now that I'm getting sharp again, that stuff is becoming more comfortable. So my ability to score is heightened when I'm playing forward, and my ability to pass and make a difference in that way is heightened as a midfielder.”