Landon Donovan is the most valuable American soccer player in history. Let me tell you why.
There has never been a moment (not against Ghana in ’06, not during the Cambodia kerfuffle, not when Dempsey moved to Spurs) that I thought Clint Dempsey was the better player. He’s simply the rarer American breed. He attempts foot-overs. He — often puzzlingly — tries slicing through defenders with spin moves. He’ll try… stuff.
He’s often quite good at this, and he fails probably more than most coaches would prefer to allow from a single player. But that mystery is enticing. We don’t produce players like Dempsey, so he plays on the folds of your brain U.S. soccer has yet to access. This, often unfairly, ups his credentials before he’s ever touched a ball.
Donovan embodies U.S. soccer in considerably more ways than does Dempsey, often to his detriment. It isn’t only that Donovan never really left home (and while his spells at Everton were successful, they were always only that — spells). It isn’t only that his face has been plastered on TV screens and books and magazines over the past decade. And it isn’t only that his name is as 21st-century American as Captain America himself.
It’s his style of play. Donovan is industry with intelligence. Work rate with precision. Speed with guile. It is a very American thing to work through 90 minutes as though you were on an assembly line churning out steel propeller shafts. Donovan at his core is a workmanlike player, and it’s the most obvious facet of his game when you watch him. He puts an incredible amount of energy into scorching touchlines, both tracking back and going forward. But there’s more. His vision is incredible, and he marries his industry with his touch.
This is the departure, but it’s subtle. Dempsey is the sexy pick, the attractive one who shows you the craziest six months of your life, then drives your soul into the core of the earth and blows it up. Donovan is the sensible one, the one you bring home to the parents. You know, the one you marry.
I’m going to preempt some thoughts here. Will Klinsmann care which of these is better? No. He doesn’t have to make a choice between the two. Will Sigi Schmid or Bruce Arena care which is better? No, because they don’t have to make the choice either.
The argument is for the fans and for the sake of posterity. Now that the two have comparable monster MLS contracts after Donovan’s recent LA deal, it’s only fitting we look at the two side-by-side. If I’ve chosen 10 players for my team and you put Donovan and Dempsey in front of me, I take Donovan every time. Here’s why.
Attacking ideas: Dempsey
Dempsey is a wild card, and his ability to find slivers of space is an unteachable trait. He can run off shoulders, unload from deep or chip Gigi Buffon and make the world stop. His (general) central location on the field gives him the freedom to roam, dropping him back and pulling on defenders. While Donovan piledrives into the area, Dempsey flits around it like a hummingbird. He has both the ability to yank defenders out of position to open avenues or simply operate as an out-and-out striker. Dempsey’s versatility in these situations cannot be overstated.
Work rate: Donovan
Watching Donovan is a routine experience. With few exceptions (there are always exceptions, of course, because these are humans) he’s flicking on careful through balls, making pointed runs and making himself available. If if Donovan’s head isn’t in it, it’s clear he’s almost always banging it against the wall to get it to wake up. Dempsey doesn’t have the same internal switch. There are times when, having diagnosed the tenor of the game as something he’s uncomfortable with, Dempsey will simply shut off. He’s dropped too deep, floated too wide, taken too few touches. There are times when Dempsey plays like a moody teenager. Even if he’s out of form, you rarely see the same from Donovan.
This is, without question, Dempsey’s biggest strength. He’s a tactical bellwether, an attacking stem cell. Dempsey is savvy enough to tailor his deployment to the needs of the side on a game-by-game basis. This can be frustrating for rigid tactical minds (Dempsey and Jose Mourinho would never, ever mix well) but Dempsey has luckily found managers who value his ability to find the pulse of the game and adjust accordingly on his own. Inevitably, where he settles in the attacking third is where the team needs him most, and it’s not always the same place. This is an incredible resource, especially for teams with soft spots in this part of the field.
Not much question here. Donovan’s entire tactical setup rotates around his ability to stab at the area from range. Whether that’s from killer balls or runs, Donovan’s pace has always been one of his greatest weapons. At times, you get the sense Dempsey is too mentally entangled with his next foot maneuver to worry about out-running someone. This isn’t a huge knock on Dempsey as his deployment rarely asks him to be a burner, but it does make Donovan that much more versatile and dangerous.
Talk all you want about Dempsey’s scoring record in England being more impressive than Donovan’s in MLS via the Europe-is-better scattershot. I’d prefer to go for a more apples-to-apples approach with their returns on the same stage: with the USMNT. Donovan has had more caps than Dempsey (151-99) so naturally he has more goals (56-35). So let’s look at percentages. Donovan’s rate of return is 37. Dempsey’s is 35. Plus, Algeria. Defense rests.
We’ve talked before about the “culture of being OK,” that Donovan has bucked it by admitting and embracing his brokenness. It’s that mental capacity to truly love the game (and, in turn, truly loathe it) that puts Donovan in a different class. Few players’ form is so intrinsically linked to their mental wellbeing. And when Donovan has nicked the vein that contains his love for the game (as he did in the Gold Cup this summer), there has never been a better American player. Rolling the dice on that happening is, more often than not, a winning proposition for the most iconic American soccer player of an iconic American soccer generation.