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Oct 5, 2007

No question that Donovan is America's best

LOS ANGELES -- When Landon Donovan won the Honda Player of the Year award for an unprecedented fourth time, master of ceremonies at the event, Andres Cantor, was running out of superlatives to describe the feat. Finally, the Argentine announcer summed up his opinion of Donovan.

"He's the best," Cantor said. "He's the best ever from the United States."

That appreciation is not always what Donovan has received from fans in his own country. While the U.S. has impressed on the world stage with competent defenders and goalkeepers, no American has really made an impact at the top club level as a star attacking player.

Fans who wish that from Donovan have decried that he declines to test himself in European competition.

"For Landon to be the best player of all time in the United States, he needs to go to Europe," said Brian Quinn, a pioneer in the U.S. national team's resurgence in the early 1990s. "That's something [Claudio] Reyna has done, [Eric] Wynalda has done, John Harkes and Brad Friedel and [Kasey] Keller. That's what I'd love to see him do."

Wanting Donovan to reach higher didn't mean that Quinn couldn't appreciate what has already been accomplished.

"If you look at all the players that we've had over the years and if you were to play them in a 4-4-2, I think he and Eric Wynalda would be the starting forwards," said Quinn.

Even those who might agree with that assessment often find themselves ambivalent when talk turns to Donovan as the greatest ever.

One person who is not expected to be impartial in that debate is Donovan's mother, Donna Kenney-Cash, who remembered her son first showing promise as a five-year-old playing against children who had two to three years on him.

"He dribbled around all the older kids and made goal after goal," Kenney-Cash said.

U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley cautiously endorsed the idea of Donovan as America's finest in history.

"Certainly, there's a small group of players at the top and he's one of them," said Bradley. "Given his age and all the good things we hope from him in the future, the possibility of being alone at the top is certainly there."

Los Angeles Galaxy GM Alexi Lalas, a former winner of the award himself, was less reserved.

"When we look back many years from now, we will look back at him as the greatest American player ever to play the game," Lalas said.

At first sight, there's little sense of what makes Donovan special. He doesn't have the breathtaking speed of a track athlete. Though he has the small size of a Maradona, he doesn't have the stocky strength. Donovan's not a superb dead-ball striker like a David Beckham.

It's when he's on the move during a game that Donovan's talents shine.

"He's got a great sense of timing and reading space, combined with his movement and his speed," Bradley said. "He becomes a really dynamic attacking player."

At only 25, Donovan tied Wynalda this year for most U.S. goals scored, 34. Last year, he claimed the all-time assists record.

"He's small, but he's one of the quickest guys on the field," said Galaxy teammate Chris Albright. "Technically, I don't think there's anybody better as far as what he can do, not in our country."

Donovan himself was a little startled at Cantor's declaration.

"At the end of the day, I'm not sure what it means," said Donovan. "It's a matter of opinion. I think to be in that conversation, I'm proud of that."

Despite how poorly the U.S. team performed at the last World Cup, Donovan was also proud of his ability to bounce back from that disappointment.

"I've changed more in the last year than I have in the previous seven," Donovan said.

"Everybody feels that they have the proper path for Landon," said Lalas. "The only person who can lay out that path is Landon. He does have a clarity about what he wants to do. He looks at his career as a part of his life that he wants to enjoy and he wants to maximize, and he wants to dictate as to how that goes. He takes a lot of criticism for his decisions, but at the end of the day, it's his life and his career."

Those who know Donovan see a progression in his ability to handle himself on and off the field.

"He's really matured," said Albright. "The sky is the limit as far as what he can do on the field, but he's really grown as a man. He's really humble and gracious."

He might in fact be losing some of his earlier bravado. Donovan is no longer declaring that he doesn't need the international game, but is instead open to the opportunities that might present themselves.

"Someday, because now I have that competitive flow back," Donovan said of going to Europe.

Yet Donovan doesn't panic whether that chance will come.

"Going overseas is not the answer to every problem," Lalas said. "Going overseas and going to the proper situation, on and off the field, and the proper experience that is going to make you better as a player and as a person; it's not as easy to find, even for Landon Donovan."

Donovan admitted as much.

"It might never happen. I have a wife and maybe I'll have kids now. You don't really get to choose these things, especially as an American soccer player. No one's knocking my door down."

Perhaps where Donovan has learned the most patience is with the fans who still hound him and belittle him.

"It's OK to have opinions, but I think there should be some sort of unilateral understanding of what a good team is, what a good game is, what a good performance was, and that's not always the case," said Donovan of U.S. supporters. "Sometimes I wonder what game people are watching. But that's the learning curve with American soccer, because so many people haven't grown up with the game."

In an odd twist, Donovan may have found his greatest acclaim among the fans of the opponents of the U.S., especially arch-rival Mexico.

"The telling thing is anytime I go anywhere there," said Donovan. "When you're in the stadium, people are going to yell and shout and cuss, but deep down, they have respect."

At a recent vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Donovan signed more autographs and posed for more pictures than he ever does in the United States. Some U.S. fans may still want not want to admit it, but in Mexico at least, fans know there is no question that Donovan is America's best.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for soccer365.com and contributes to a blog, Sideline Views. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com.