I sighed a little reading about the dust-up stirred up among fans when Brad Friedel made some remarks to the effect that Landon Donovan took "the easy road" by staying in Major League Soccer, as compared to Clint Dempsey, who plays in England for Fulham.
Friedel backtracked a bit by going on to explain his comments were not meant to disparage Landon or any other MLS player. His words surely weren't complimentary, however.
That a player who worked hard to move to England and then has worked very hard to stay there thinks it means more for another player to do the same is perfectly legitimate, though. It's simple preference.
For people to be upset about that opinion is as pointless as the chocolate versus vanilla debate.
Both Donovan and Dempsey are good players. Both have accomplished a lot for their respective clubs and for the USMNT. Arguments can easily be made for one or the other as the top USA player today. The winner will always come down to which qualities or achievements are valued more by the person doing the evaluation.
Debate among fans is good, though, and for some, a rehash of old arguments is still worthwhile, given that history needs to be updated with the latest information and comparisons.
For me, the Donovan versus Dempsey debate is far less irritating than another, more frustrating argument.
This is the one I call the 'ghost Donovan' debate.
This is the argument made by people who believe that if Landon Donovan had stayed at Bayer Leverkusen (either the first -circa 2000- or the second time -circa 2004-), he would have somehow taken his limited playing time and buckled down into a really inspired hard worker who would be the most amazing USA player ever, make it on to some top team like Manchester United or Barcelona, and play well enough that worldwide, there would be admiration for his talent and people would regularly say, "Americans can really play."
The 'ghost Donovan' is better than the real one at every turn. He speaks Dutch and French (stints with Ajax and Lyon) in addition to German, Spanish and English. GD's a little taller, faster, nicer, and dresses better than Donovan. He makes souffles instead of eating In-&-Out cheeseburgers.
Yet even with the luxury of imagining a perfect world for GD, the timeline of reality is also a powerful argument. Without the game experience learned in MLS, would Donovan have been ready for World Cup 2002? What would have changed from that point on?
The sad thing about the GD versus LD argument is that it casts a shadow on everything Donovan does accomplish. Apparently, GD would have scored even more USA goals, notched even more assists. LD can't escape the comparisons against a super-idealized, European-playing version of himself.
I've said before that I firmly believe some of Donovan's most strident detractors are actually his biggest fans when they say he'd be so much better if he played in Europe. I've thought of him as a good player, but not one with huge reserves of untapped potential. In either MLS or abroad, he's been pretty much the same player for quite a while now. He's not going to suddenly crank up to another gear or become a total magician with the ball. What will define his legacy at this point will be his longevity - and his ability to sustain that level of play.
Some have argued that Donovan owed it to other American players to blaze a trail for them abroad, but it's possible that GD would have been considered an American anomaly, made more in Germany, etc, than really produced by the USA. Who knows? Everything about GD is pure conjecture, agonizingly abstract.
I guess the debate that I want to see one day is one comparing two top USA players, say, Sebastian Lletget and Luis Gill. I'd like to see fans raving on about their speed and skill, their creativity and strength under pressure, citing special shots or moments as evidence of superiority, but completely bypassing as irrelevant the continent of the club teams both represent. It probably won't happen for a long while, but it's better than the tiresome GD versus LD scenario.