Donovan joins the century club
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Landon Donovan became the youngest American to ever reach 100 caps as he captained the U.S. on Sunday in a 0-0 draw against Argentina. Donovan's presence in the starting 11 was a welcome addition to a midfield that had missed his calming presence the past two games.
Playmaker for both club and country, Donovan had been a fixture of the national side through its first three games of the year -- all wins. He had missed the previous two matches (against England and Spain) due to a nagging groin injury, but his presence in the final third versus the top-ranked team in the world was very much needed. In a night where long-time national team goalkeeper Kasey Keller was also honored during pregame for his 100th cap (earned back in June 2007), Donovan's own entrance into the century club was a saving grace for a United States squad that looked overwhelmed at times.
"I was pleased to see moments tonight where he was daring," said coach Bob Bradley after the game. "I think that's important for him. He's a team player but there are times I want to see him trying things at the right moment. I think it means a lot to us."
Shutting down the one-time Leverkusen midfielder was clearly the focus of Argentine coach Alfio Basile's schemes. At times drawing double teams from midfielder Fernanando Gago and center back Gonzalo Rodriguez, Donovan was hit and hurried to release the ball from his markers. For much of the first half, Argentina would carry the attack as the Americans would have to defend numerous Argentinean forays into the attacking third. As the announced 4-4-2 lineup morphed into more of a 4-5-1, the usually offensive-minded Donovan took on a gritty destroyer role at times, playing above the holding midfielders of Pablo Mastroeni and Michael Bradley. It was dirty work for Donovan, tracking back to try and calm the midfield.
"My job was similar to what I play in L.A., under the high forwards," said Donovan. "At times, I try to get higher, try to play forward. Bob [Bradley] does give me some freedom offensively."
All was not smooth as the game started. The main problem for Donovan stemmed from a severe crisis of the American back line and midfield who were all seemingly playing very static. With little movement off the ball, Donovan was left with precious few options other than to play vertical balls to Eddie Johnson. Perhaps the best chance that Donovan created in the half was against the run of play in the 17th minute, as he sent a swerving free kick from 40 yards out to Johnson whose flash header was swallowed up by the expectant arms of goalkeeper Roberto Abbondanzieri.
After the half, Donovan settled into his more comfortable role of dictating the American attack. In the 46th minute, he would receive a ball near the penalty spot that would be blocked to set up a corner. The ensuing kick, also taken by Donovan, would set up the best opportunity of the match for the U.S. Donovan's cross found the head of Oguchi Oneywu, who beat Abbondanzieri, but not the post.
"It took us a little bit to kind of figure out what we needed to do," said Donovan of the team's improved play in the second half. "In the second half, we were better and perhaps a little unlucky not to win." The field titled towards Tim Howard's goal at the 72nd minute when Pablo Mastroeni received a red card for dissent. Often playing alone up top, Donovan once again was asked by head coach Bob Bradley to play more defensively.
The entrance of Freddy Adu midway through the half stabilized the midfield in a way that the fatiguing Donovan could no longer effectively do. Roaming wide, the team settled into a bunker mode as the game entered stoppage time. A physically exhausted and soaked Donovan seemed relieved at the whistle.
"Now I rest," said Donovan. "It was a long game tonight."
Kristian R. Dyer is a freelance writer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the associate editor of Blitz magazine and also writes for the New York City daily paper METRO. He can be reached for comment at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com.