Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dempsey, Donovan, Friedel Donnybrook

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.


dcboy60 said...

It appears to me that Donovan was not getting a legitimate shot to play overseas when he was young. The way I look at it he has done a great deal to establish MLS in the US. MLS can only make it if there are excellent US players in the league. Donovan is and has been that player. Jurgen Klinsmann is emphasizing first team playing time for his players. The higher quality of play in these European leagues doesn't help if a guy is sitting on the bench. Look at Jozy Altidore. He is finally getting a chance to play and shining in the Netherlands. Maybe the difficult experience with Valencia helped him. Who knows the answer. I think it is a different situation for each individual. It is clear to me that Jozy has improved his foot skills in tight spaces, something Donovan has never been known for. I think one of the reasons Donovan has been able to remain relatively injury free is because he stays away from tight spaces.

Rafael said...

I get your point about the "Ghost Donovan" silliness, but I have to side with the "Trail Blazer" argument. European football is just that much more of a higher level, and our NT team needs our players constantly playing and training at the highest level of football. As good as the Brazilian and Argentine leagues are, most all their NT players play in top European teams. Look at how exporting players has helped Venezuela grow into a footballing country in such a short time!

I realize that Ghost Donovan probably wouldn't play much better for our NT. and I respect his decision for wanting play and star for his home team, even if it's 2nd/3rd Division Quality elsewhere in the world. But based on how well he did on his last stint with Everton, I think he could raise his game even more, and inspire not only this generation of talented American players but future ones as well.

He's back at Everton now. This time he's got an MLS Cup in his hometown, maybe if he performs well he might have a tougher choice. I can't speak for him, but I myself would trade 10 MLS Cups for one FA Cup, but that's just me.

Don said...

Landon Donovan has been a very solid player for the USA for a long period. What's more he has had flashes of brilliance that aren't seen in many of his US team mates. The arguments that he would have gotten better had he played in Europe are bolstered by Dempsey's undeniable improvement while at Fulham. It is tempting to believe that Donovan's flashes of brilliance would have become a regular occurrence. Ultimately the most accurate answer to the question of whether that would have happened - Maybe. That said I don't know that an individual owes it to the world to sacrifice his happiness to appease soccer fans. And what's more, while Mr. Dempsey desrves plaudits, Mr Friedel does himself no credit running down a fellow player over this sort of issue.