Lacking focus, Donovan risks future

By Dimitri Islam

For a superstar athlete, photo shoots, T.V. commercials, endorsement deals, raving fans, and the constant spotlight always remain in the picture. After an interview on The Tonight Show, a promising athlete can then shuttle off to strike a deal with Gatorade. This is a commonplace occurrence in American professional sports.

For some athletes, though, the world that surrounds stardom may be too much.

At least that’s what San Jose Earthquakes head coach Frank Yallop thinks about his best player, Landon Donovan. In a recent interview, Yallop claimed that Donovan should stop all his extraneous commitments and just focus on soccer. Moreover, Yallop implied that Donovan has been playing at a subpar level, and that he needs to pick up his game in the future.

That’s some cold commentary on the supposed wonderboy of American soccer. Few have even bothered criticizing Donovan yet, pointing to his great World Cup performance as proof that he is America’s brightest star.

But Yallop may have a point.

In 20 games for the Earthquakes, Donovan tallied seven goals and three assists. Those totals were good enough for a third-place finish on San Jose’s scoring list. This was hardly a memorable season for Donovan, and, for someone who can presumably score at any time, these totals need to improve next season.

Along with a poor season with San Jose, Donovan’s form in recent friendlies with the U.S. National Team has been a bit worrying. Certainly, friendlies don’t mean anything, and very little can be gleaned from these matches. Nevertheless, a disturbing trend seems to be taking place: teams get physical with Donovan–they push him around, and they mark him with a bit of venom. In response to this sort of treatment, Donovan fades in and out of the match. Occasionally, he launches a good attack, but he also remains anonymous for large portions of the match.

For the most creative player on the national team, this is not a good sign. Other, more talented squads have other players they can rely on to start the attack, but, at least in the near future, most of the U.S.’ offense will flow through Donovan. As an attacking midfielder, Donovan must make his presence known throughout the game, not at select intervals.

At the World Cup this past summer, Donovan had a sort of grace period. No one knew exactly how he would perform, and, consequently, his great form pleased all viewers. Now, consistency is the key. Unfair as it may be, Donovan is expected to regularly nutmeg world-class defenders and punish great goalkeepers.

After proving it once, Donovan now needs to prove himself time and time again.

Unfortunately, he has not been able to reach such heights in recent weeks. Also, as teams design game plans that work against Donovan’s strengths, the diminutive attacker must learn how to rise above this adversity. As the U.S.’ most talented player, teams will now center on him. Physical tackles will be thrown his way for the entire duration of the match. Teams will push him off the ball, rough him up, and generally do whatever is necessary to knock him off his game. Donovan tends to wither a bit under these conditions.

With all of these concerns, LD’s next season at San Jose stands as a critical testing period. As Yallop hopes, Donovan should provide at least around 20 goals for the Earthquakes. Twenty goals is generally the key indicator of a top striker, and that’s what Donovan must prove he is–a consistent, strong, attacking player. After this year, Donovan will, with any luck, return to Germany. He is still a young player, but, as the soccer world continues to get younger, time is not necessarily on his side. He needs to compete with the best, and he needs experience taking on world-class defenders, not the second-rate players he faces in the MLS. He can accelerate past players like Mike Petke and Rusty Pierce, but can he do the same against Germany’s top talent? Donovan must find out. Soon.

Only three or four years ago, Donovan looked like one of the top talents in the world. He was named the best player in the U-17 World Cup, and his place at a top club seemed assured. Now, Donovan continues to perform well, but his inconsistency is somewhat alarming. Understandably, his home and his family remain in the California area, and Donovan hopes to stay in San Jose. For his career, however, this may not be the best choice. He needs better competition, and he needs to prove that he can score bunches of goals in the Bundesliga, not in the MLS.

Do the endorsements and the photo shoots account for LD’s poor performance of late? Yallop may be overextending himself to find reasons for the drop in form, but the fact remains: Donovan has not performed up to expectations recently. So far, Landon Donovan has not reacted well to the recent pressure he’s faced. In the future, for his own career and for the aspirations of an entire soccer nation, he must.