In any rational mind, Landon Donovan is one of the top three players we’ve ever had. But let’s do that thing where we name who the best is. That old game, with all its obvious flaws, its biases. Let’s just do it.
We’ll define “best” as the guy who you give the ball to in a big game. The guy who goes out and wins you things. The guy who picks the team up when it might as well just be a stinking carcass, chains it up, hooks it to him, then hauls it over the goal-line.
That guy is Landon Donovan.
If that’s your definition of the “best”, then that’s it; he’s our best. Nobody else has ever done that for us.
Go back to the 2010 World Cup.
To South Africa.
In the Group Stage, the US tied England, tied Slovenia, and had to beat Algeria or be eliminated.
Already, the tournament had been a colossal drain. Going down to England after the first five minutes, fighting back to draw. Then down early in the second game, to Slovenia, 2-0 at the half. The Americans came back, even scored a third, but got cheated on an offsides call. They took that goal away.
Our last game was against Algeria. If we beat them, we’d qualify for the Knockout Stage. The game started at twilight, and went into dark, and that’s African dark, which through the television is a shade blacker, is a notch emptier than the dark most of us see.
Dempsey nearly got the team through early. Again, with that same old crap though. He got called offsides when he wasn’t. He missed a second one.
Our guys started blasting free kicks at the Algerian goal.
Knocked headers down at it.
But the Algerians had built themselves a wall around that net — when had they done that?
Nothing would go in.
In Port Elizabeth, England took the lead against Slovenia.
If they won and we tied, we were going home.
And it was passed the 90th minute.
It was looking bad.
We were going home.
The players were going to get on that long airplane ride, soar over the clouds, and think about how far they came, how little they did.
We were going to be failures.
That’s what it seemed like.
In 2006, we were awful. Finished last in our group. We couldn't do that again. We needed to achieve something this World Cup, because our team, though getting stronger, was still so brittle, still trying to keep a trickle of hope going. We had yet to overcome our feeling of inferiorty.
Up stepped Donovan.
The 91st minute, USA vs Algeria, 0-0: Donovan watches Tim Howard snatch a straight-forward header out of the air.
The Algerians committed a lot of players forward. Donovan looks up the field. They only have three guys back. Like a good point guard, he gets wide and close to the ball. He’s the outlet.
Howard finds him in a flash.
Donovan brings down the pass and has a look up.
What’s ahead of him? A hole the size of Texas.
A whole lot of open space.
Two guys in green.
Three others in red, white, and blue.
It’s time to go.
And that’s classic Donovan. That’s the player he was. He was aggressive and fast. If you got that in any sport you’re going to be just fine. If you got that and you got a gunslinging way of playing like Landon Donovan did? That way of coming into town just when you're needed, when things look bad, when things look over, and you can come in and outplay everyone else, just for the few seconds you need to, just long enough to win the game.
You got that, and you’re gonna be more than fine.
You’re gonna be good.
Back to Africa.
Donovan runs straight at the defenders, slips a pass to Altidore.
It’s put back across to Dempsey.
Goalkeeper plugs his shot.
The ball is loose.
The goal is open.
Donovan was either an inch away or it was a mile. Either way he ran in there, into the confusion, into the panic of a ball loose in the penalty box, in the 91st minute, in a tie game. The team chained to his back, he unlatched us, grabbed us by the neck and whipped us into the net. Right through a hole in the Algerian wall, one nobody else on our team could find.
And that's what we'll miss.
Who is going to do that for us now?
Who will rescue us when we're laying in the gutter?
We're playing a sport we barely know, usually in a place we've never been.
2018 in Russia.
2022 in Qatar.
We need a new Man with No Name.
Big games aren't won by regular folks.