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Jun 23, 2006

Donovan needs to leave his comfort zone

NUREMBERG, Germany --The enduring images of Landon Donovan's 2006 World Cup will not be of goals he scored (he didn't score any) or plays he made (he didn't make many). What will be remembered is how the team's most talented player came up small on the stage he was supposed to thrive on.

There were the poor shots, the terrible free kicks and corner kicks, and the poorly timed runs and poorly placed passes, but for all the disappointing moments of Donovan's tournament, one stands out. There he was, bearing in on goal late in the second half against Ghana, dancing in front of a defender and making progress toward a potential goal. The pro-United States crowd held its collective breath, anticipating the long-awaited moment of brilliance from the 2002 World Cup star.

Did he shoot the ball? No, Landon chose instead to drop off a pass to Ben Olsen. Yes, with the game on the line, Landon deferred to one of the last players chosen to the U.S. roster.

As much as the World Cup is about teams coming together, it is even more so about the best players in the world taking charge and leading their countries at the game's highest level. The U.S. team's veteran stars, Kasey Keller and Claudio Reyna, did their part, but it was painfully obvious for two and a half of the team's three matches that Donovan just wasn't ready to take charge.

If anything, Donovan provided clear-cut evidence that it is time for him to pack his bags, sell his beachside condo in California and go back to Europe. He has sold us on a bill of goods for more than a year about being a better player when he is comfortable. Being comfortable doesn't make you a better player. Being comfortable makes you a comfortable player.

Donovan -- and any soccer player worth his golden spikes -- needs pressure to evolve. Pressure makes diamonds, busts pipes and turns soccer players into big-game stars. The World's best players, be they European or South American, live a life of continuous pressure to perform. Do it all the time, and suddenly the World Cup doesn't feel like some overwhelming experience, which is exactly what it was for Donovan, who came into this tournament with expectations he didn't have to deal with four years ago.

If Donovan wants to continue to ignore his critics, he should listen to his own national team coach and the player he is slated to replace as national team captain. Bruce Arena and Reyna spoke candidly about the rewards Donovan could reap from giving up comfort and accepting the challenge of pushing himself in Europe.

"He's in a real soccer environment every day, year-round pressure," Arena said about what Donovan would gain from going back to Europe. "He'd deal with all the tough games. Even though it looks glorious from a distance, playing in Europe is a grind.

"On a daily basis, there's competition within your team. There's pressure to win games. There's promotion and relegation. It's the real thing, and in the end, the cream rises and you see the top players prevail and it positions you to be much more successful at the international level."

Donovan should take a closer look at Reyna's career. Reyna was regarded as the United States' next great star more than a decade ago and, like Donovan, Reyna started out with German club Bayer Leverkusen. The first year at Bayer was difficult for Reyna, but rather than give up on his European dream, he sought a change of clubs. The rest of his club career has included successful stints in Scotland and England, with moves to bigger clubs at each point in his career.

"It's made me a better player, and you need to learn from bad times, as well," Reyna said. "More than anything, this World Cup for a lot of the guys will be the biggest learning experience so far in their career. That's something you definitely get in Europe. That helped me get better."

You didn't have to look any further than to the star players of the two teams that beat the United States in this World Cup for stories similar to Reyna's. Czech midfielder Tomas Rosicky and Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien played in the same Under-17 World Championships as Donovan just seven years ago. Donovan was the star of that tournament, but Rosicky and Essien are the players who left their countries afterward to hone their skills in Europe's top leagues and stayed there.

Neither player went running back to his home country when things got tough. Both stuck it out, and look at them now. Essien is one of the world's most highly rated players, and Rosicky just moved to English power Arsenal. At this World Cup, each has starred for his country and helped his nation win games.

As Reyna was careful to point out, it is still Donovan's decision. He has to decide his professional career and national team career are important enough to him to sacrifice the comfort he enjoys playing in MLS, a league that stopped being a challenge for him years ago. This isn't an attack on MLS. This is reality. For all the strides the young league has made, it still is not equipped to help the truly elite player grow.

Consider that the league's top players face no pressure for their starting job; they play in a playoff system that basically makes most regular-season matches devoid of true significance or intensity. Then there is the general lack of quality of talent as compared with the top leagues in Europe. There isn't an MLS defender Donovan can't destroy.

So where is the challenge supposed to come from for Donovan if he chooses to stay in MLS? The United States doesn't have a high-quality regional tournament to play in like the European Championships, and even World Cup qualifying offers only a handful of truly pressure-packed matches. So while the best players from other countries are honing their skills in the best possible scenarios, Donovan remains content to live the life of leisure.

It is certainly his life and his decision to make, but if he continues to insist on treating his career as something other than his highest priority, maybe it is time to look elsewhere for the U.S. team's next true star. As scary as it is to consider, maybe Donovan just isn't cut out for stardom. Maybe he's just not built to handle the pressure.

And maybe, just maybe, the U.S. national team should look elsewhere for its next captain. Perhaps Reyna's successor as captain should be a player such as Oguchi Onyewu, who has gone to Europe to become a better player and has been willing to go wherever he has to to continue growing as a player. It should come as no surprise that Onyewu played fearlessly in this World Cup, taking on some of the tournament's best players and holding his own every time.

That should have been Donovan. Instead of starring, Donovan seemed to hide in the background as some of his own teammates showed more bravery and willingness to fight than he did. It was hardly the display you would want from a future captain, and perhaps it was fitting that Donovan spent part of his time on the field after Reyna went off struggling to keep the captain's armband on his arm.

Ultimately, we must remember that Donovan is just 24. He is still maturing, and he could wake up sometime soon and realize what he needs to do. It is all up to Donovan, who has a major decision to make. Does he want to be remembered as an amazing soccer player who made the most of his talent, or does he want to be remembered as the incredible talent who cared more about being comfortable than being great?

Ives Galarcep covers soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is also a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.