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Donovan is Our MVP: Most Valuable Passer

The scoring exploits of Landon Donovan are well known. Ninety-five goals in Major League Soccer puts him sixth all-time in league history and his 42 goals for the United States make him our country’s all-time leading scorer. During the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Donovan has scored or assisted on 12 of the USA’s 17 goals, a remarkable 70 percent. With Donovan scoring three goals and assisting on nine, there’s no doubt that his playmaking ability has been one of the major factors in the USA’s qualification for South Africa.


When it happens, and it happens often, it’s one the best moments of any U.S. Men’s National Team match. Landon Donovan with the ball at his feet, racing into the opponent’s defensive third.


It’s those moments, when an incredibly swift, creative player is running to goal that bring fans to their feet. Defenses are being pulled apart, angles are changing, forwards are shifting gears into their runs and Donovan is seeing it all.


More often than not, the USA’s number 10 has played a pass with the perfect timing and weight to put a teammate in the best position to score. Donovan has always been counted on for goals anytime he hits the field, but for the USA during the nine matches in the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, it has been his precision passing which has proved to be world class and invaluable.


Playing mostly outside midfield, Donovan has used the entire field as his canvas, painting the pitch with a vast assortment of through balls, slipped passes, seeing-eye diagonal balls, crosses from the end line and bending services on set plays.


“Landon’s ability to move with the ball and size up things around him is very special,” said U.S. head coach Bob Bradley, who has deployed Donovan primarily on the left flank but with the carte blanche to roam wherever he feels is most dangerous. “The timing of his passes, his deliveries, are an important part of the way we get chances. Of late, the understanding on the team in terms of finding Landon in good positions, his mobility, and finally the understanding of some of the forwards in terms of moving at the right time has worked well, and it’s something that we continue to try to improve upon.”


Donovan’s passing is certainly not a new revelation. His 42 career international assists make him far and away the all-time U.S. leader in that category, 20 more than second place Cobi Jones. But in 2009 alone, he has racked up 10 (a record for a calendar year), including those nine in qualifying. Keep in mind that Donovan had the second to final pass on two more goals during the Hexagonal.


“There’s nothing in soccer like scoring a goal,” said Donovan. “Even as a young kid, that feeling when you would score, just the appreciation and celebration of everybody, that feeling is incredible. But for me, I get equal pleasure out of setting someone up and someone else scoring the goal. For me, it used to be about trying to score as many goals as I can, but now it’s about doing the things that help our team win. At this point in my career, a lot of times it’s passing more than scoring. It’s always been a part of my game and if there is someone in a good position to score then I try to make those plays.”


U.S. forward Brian Ching has played with Donovan since 2003 on the U.S. team and for two seasons on the San Jose Earthquakes, where the duo won the MLS Cup in 2003. The powerful striker knows better than most what impact Donovan can have on the game.


“He’s fun to play with,” said Ching. “He always makes the right pass. He has good vision. He’s a complete player and he’s unselfish. There are certain players that you know when the ball is at their feet and they have a little bit of time, that if you make a good run, they are going to make the right pass. He’s one of those players. Every time I play with him I always enjoy it because you are going to be rewarded for making good runs.”


At the highest levels, the pressures on goal scorers are extreme. They get the most fame, the most money, and the most blame. To the so-called pundits, it’s often a case of black and white. If you score, you’re a hero. If you don’t, you’re terrible. Part of Donovan’s evolution as a player has been learning to understand his own game. It has helped create the freedom which has led to even more success.


“In the past I judged myself on whether I made a play in a game to score a goal or create a goal,” said the 27-year-old Donovan. “Now, I judge myself based on what impact I had on the game, not whether I scored or not. When I play that way, and judge myself that way, I do end up scoring and creating plays a lot. It’s a lot of fun playing on this team, because guys know when we get the ball in good spots, if they make the proper run, that a lot of times they are going to the ball. It’s a good mix and I enjoy that part of soccer a lot.”


There has never been any question as to the supreme talent of Donovan, who surely is in any conversation about “the best American players ever.” On the other hand, there has been much debate about the position where his unusual talents would be best utilized. It seems that current hybrid of flank midfielder/winger/attacking midfielder fits the bill. He has been able to face the goal more than when he was playing up top, and while it might take him further away from the goal, it may create even more headaches for opposing teams.


“We don’t view him as winger, per se, or as a pure flank player,” said Bradley. “You look around the world and you see players like (France’s Franck) Ribery and (Argentina’s Lionel) Messi. Things in the center of the field are typically tight. And those players need to have the ability to drift on the field, to find seams and spaces where they can get the ball and run at defenders.


“We encourage Landon to be mobile and find those situations. We worked hard as a team to know how to find him when he plays in that role. Clint (Dempsey) is a similar situation, Stuart (Holden) and Benny (Feilhaber) as well, because I think that’s an important part of how you create the chances. It certainly means that he has some responsibilities defensively, but the freedom to move around when we win the ball, to be active and mobile are all things that help us a lot.”


Suffice it to say, Donovan is enjoying that freedom.


“It’s not a typical winger position and Bob gives me a lot of freedom to move where I want,” said Donovan. “Sometimes even if I start at left mid, parts of the game I’ll end up on the right side of the field. Just moving around and going where I need to go. It’s taken me some time to get comfortable with that position and how Bob wants me to play it. But I think I’m starting to figure out the right spots to get into to make plays and I think it’s worked out well for us. I try to do a good job of combining with people and putting people in good positions to finish plays off.”


This year, with five goals and 10 assists, Donovan became the first U.S. player ever to register 20 points in a calendar year for a second time in his career (he had nine goals and four assists in 2007). In looking back over the year, and his critical role in the USA’s qualifying campaign, Donovan is most proud, not just of his overall production, but the consistency with which he has produced. In the nine final round qualifying games so far, he has failed to register a goal or an assist just once. (Click here for an overview of Donovan’s qualifying exploits).


“The thing I’m most proud of is that consistently this year I have been mentally into every game we’ve played,” said Donovan. “I can’t remember even five or 10 minutes in a game that I wasn’t focused or tuned into the game and that has been the biggest challenge for me. So to overcome that and also to see results not only in statistics, but also in how we’ve done in qualifying for the World Cup is really rewarding to me.”


U.S. Soccer and its fans have reaped the rewards as well, in the form of a ticket to a sixth straight FIFA World Cup.