COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s just a hunch, a little premonition that Landon Donovan just might remind everyone tonight how important he remains to the United States national team, that while other U.S. men have cultivated their value and outright necessity to Jurgen Klinsmann’s current bunch, the program’s all-time leading scorer still has that “something special” in his game.
Donovan, now 31, can still change a match in a white-hot flash, and I have a feeling he might just rise anew as that same Mexican national team killer he’s been for more than 10 years, since that blistering run and technically perfect header put that a Round of 16 match against Mexico at World Cup 2002 beyond reach.
Yes, after all these years of haunting Mexico, summoning a grudging respect from El Tri faithful along the way, the LA Galaxy man could once again play the border battle villain, further battering a badly listing Mexican World Cup effort, one that just cannot bale water fast enough right now.
The conditions just feel right for it. Donovan has been on such a roll lately, for the United States in the Gold Cup – where he dominated a tournament, start to finish, like so few U.S. men ever have – and then for the Galaxy in MLS contests. Or maybe you didn’t hear about that showy hat trick for Los Angeles less than a month ago.
There is also Donovan’s history of showing up in big games to consider. Not all of them, to be sure; even he frowns at reflective images of that deflated 2006 World Cup performance. But time and again, going back 10 years, Donovan has found a way to deliver the goods in World Cup qualifiers that matter most.
And this is Mexico! His fleet feet scored brilliantly against Mexico in one of Bob Bradley’s first games in charge. Donovan once set up Eddie Lewis for a goal in Mexico City in a World Cup qualifying (back when Mexico actually won in Mexico City). A couple of years later he set up Charlie Davies in Mexico City, giving the United States its first ever lead at fabled Azteca Stadium.
Heck, going all the way back to Donovan’s bright national team debut in October of 2000, he scored a goal in that one. Against Mexico. In a 2-0 win. There is it again, “Dos a cero.”
I’m not the only one who feels something like this might be coming on. As one member of the U.S. Soccer staff here in Columbus put it (and I am paraphrasing): With Donovan, they feel like there is a “tornado watch,” so to speak, on some figurative big weather breaking out from Donovan right now, and they are hoping this turns into a full-on tornado warning in time for kickoff tonight.
(FYI, they also say Donovan’s re-integration into the team could not have possibly have gone any smoother, and that Klinsmann could not happier about the versatile attacker’s attitude.)
Frankly, the United States needs the “Big Donovan” tonight at Crew Stadium, where a Mexican team in crisis may be vulnerable, but may also be motivated by the coaching change and by its increasing desperation to stave off World Cup catastrophe.
The United States is missing Jozy Altidore. It is stripped of Michael Bradley’s ability to open up the defense with a killer pass or one of his wisely timed runs forward. And it is saddled with a version of Clint Dempsey that just isn’t as fit as he needs to be (especially as temperatures reach into the 90s today around Crew Stadium). In other words, the United States is running short on game-breakers. They need Donovan to be game-breaking Donovan.
His influence grew Friday against Costa Rica as Jurgen Klinsmann inserted Altidore and Eddie Johnson into the match, shifting Donovan out wide. He may be out there again tonight at Crew Stadium; Graham Zusi sometimes struggles to influence matches that get just a little faster and edgier, as tonight’s against Mexico surely will be.
Or Donovan could be back in the hole behind Clint Dempsey, more like what we saw Friday in Costa Rica. Either way, the Mexicans will know about Donovan, willing and able to pay extra attention, safe in the knowledge that Bradley is reduced to walking wounded on the sidelines.
And yet, Donovan and his savvy soccer brain can still find a way to tear open El Tri’s back line. He may or may not have a big game or a couple of massive moments in him – but I’m betting that he will.