PRETORIA, South Africa – Everyone knows that Tim Howard must stand big and brave starting Saturday in Rustenburg against the Three Lions, but surely in matches against Slovenia and Algeria, too.
And Clint Dempsey is a difference maker without a doubt, a provocateur in cleats and a critically important figure for club and country. Consider that for the United States he was the only U.S. goal scorer four years ago in Germany, and that the wiry fellow from East Texas has seasoned himself considerably since.
But if I had to pick one absolutely indispensible figure in a US shirt, if I had to pick the ultimate “bus” guy – you know, you won’t even think about pulling out en route to the stadium until this one man is on the bus – that man would have to be Landon Donovan.
I’ll even take it a step further and say it like this:
In terms of World Cups, Donovan may be the most indispensible figure ever to suit up for the United States.
Surprised to hear such a thing? Well, that’s Donovan, a man whose accomplishments, for whatever reason, seem perennially undervalued. I won’t overstate the case and say that what he does for the national team is taken for granted, but that’s not too far from the truth.
I simply cannot think of anyone, past or present, so badly needed as the Yanks go hunting for success and respect in global soccer’s quadrennial mash-up.
In the big picture, Donovan brings a wealth of experience. We still tend to see the guy as a young attacker. But the kid from Redlands outside LA is no longer a kid. He’s all grown up, 28 now, smack dab in the sweet spot of a player’s career, old enough to know and still young enough to do. And how about this: Assuming Donovan plays in all three first round contests, he’ll match Cobi Jones and Earnie Stewart for most World Cup caps with 11. (And I think we can all agree with some degree of certainty that, barring injury and assuming qualification, Donovan will grace a fourth World Cup in 2014, too. So he’s probably destined to be the all-time leader in World Cup appearances before it’s done.)
Donovan surely inspires confidence. Players around him recognize that Donovan’s ability to create on his own or arrange goals for others means the United States always has a chance – even in Rustenburg on Saturday against one of the World Cup favorites. Plus, he’s brimming with confidence of his own. His highly successful loan spell to Everton removed any lingering doubt that Donovan could not just perform, but flourish and lead at a high level, even in the fastest lane of global soccer at a World Cup.
And now he is praised even by the English media. The Guardian calls Donovan “the undoubted star – indeed, the only star – of the USA team.”
No one was more influential in qualifying than Donovan, the country’s all-time leading scorer. He always seemed to turn up big with a goal or an assist when Bob Bradley’s team needed it most. Would the United States be in South Africa without Donovan? Probably – but no one could say with 100 percent certainty. He did record a goal or assist in 8 of 10 qualifiers.
Things were uncomfortably close to going into a death spiral last September in Utah. The United States trailed El Salvador at home, and a loss that evening at Rio Tinto could surely have left the U.S. effort on the skids. But there was Donovan to provide two assists and help rescue the night.
That dead-ball ability, which Donovan has kept polishing and improving over the years, will produce a goal somewhere over three first-round matches. Count on it.
Now, Donovan says he’s fitter and more mentally prepared than ever – and I’d say that punctuates this already compelling argument that no one has ever been as vital to a U.S. World Cup campaign.
None of this is to subtract anything from what Howard and Dempsey bring to the mix. Dempsey can be a one-man goal mouth tsunami, turning the six-yard box into soccer’s equivalent of a barroom brawl. And he has the audacity to believe he can score from long distance or by running boldly at defenders.
Howard’s body of work speaks for itself at this point. His only demerit is not having played in a World Cup match before. He certainly knows something of pressure from Liverpool derbies and big cup matches with Manchester United and Everton.
Even if Howard were to be utterly jaw-dropping sensational over 270 minutes here, it probably wouldn’t matter unless the US can produce at the other end. And that’s why Donovan’s part is crucial.
He sees two and three moves ahead. His contribution of speed and deadeye dead ball ability is essential to a US attack that will lean heavily on counters and set piece strikes against England.
But perhaps the most poignant praise comes from the English themselves. Newspapers in London claim that Fabio Capello’s choice of tactical arrangement – either a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 – may have something to do with Donovan. A 4-2-3-1 would permit the LA Galaxy attacker with too much room on the flanks, so a 4-4-2 looks likely.
In other words, before the game has even kicked off, Donovan is affecting the game.