Donovan proves his talent on the world stage
JOHANNESBURG -- When Clint Dempsey stepped onto the podium of honor after the final match of the Confederations Cup to accept the bronze ball as the tournament's third-best player, he was brushing elbows with soccer royalty. Following Dempsey was the tournament's leading scorer, Luis Fabiano, and the internationally renowned Kaka.
Looking on from the field below was teammate Landon Donovan. Without taking anything away from Dempsey's performance in South Africa, that mild snub seemed less-than-fair recognition for the player who sparked the U.S. attack throughout the cup.
"I thought he had a fantastic tournament," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said of Donovan after Sunday's heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Brazil in the final. "I was a bit disappointed he didn't get up on the podium for one of the awards, to be honest with you. He's taken a lot of criticism, but he showed he was a world-class player, not just today but this whole tournament."
Along with two goals and two assists in South Africa, Donovan consistently provided an offensive spark for the Americans, and captained the team through the first round in Bocanegra's absence.
"When he plays well like that, he kind of leads by example and other guys feed off that," said Bocanegra, who reclaimed the captain's armband when he returned in the Americans' semifinal victory over Spain. "He has so much to offer. He just brought it up another level for the tournament."
When he is on his game, as he was in South Africa, Donovan brings a unique element of aggressiveness and flair to the U.S. attack. While other players were more often the ones to put the ball in the net, the L.A. Galaxy forward was instrumental in most of the chances the Americans produced throughout their five games in South Africa.
After another sterling performance on Sunday -- in which he scored to put the Americans up by two goals 27 minutes into the first half -- Donovan was singled out for praise by coach Bob Bradley.
"Landon's been excellent," Bradley said. "His commitment to every game, his motivation, his pure competitiveness are things that all came shining through. He realizes that he still has a lot of great things ahead. And for our national team to see him in that kind of form, that kind of mentality, sets a good standard for everybody else."
Sunday's goal -- Donovan's second of the tournament after a penalty kick in the opening game against Italy -- came on a quick counterattack which caught the Brazilians off guard. Donovan took a deflection in the American end and played a long ball down the flank to Davies, then ran onto an inch-perfect return pass, before cutting around defender Ramires and slamming a left-footed shot past goalkeeper Julio Cesar.
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"We saw that the counterattack would be on in this game," Davies explained. "Landon played me a great ball and I was able to see him and play a great ball to him and he was able to finish it."
While his American teammates already consider Donovan world-class, the former Bayern Munich man is still often overlooked by international observers of the American game. Three relatively unsuccessful stints in the German Bundesliga have overshadowed Donovan's dominance in MLS, leaving some feeling that he has a lot still to prove on the international level.
Donovan's play landed him on the short list of players for the Golden Ball award, though he did not finish among the top three in the voting by journalists. Despite that, his performances in South Africa will have gone a long way toward dispelling the doubts about his ability to produce at the top level of international soccer.
"He really stepped up this tournament," Davies said. "He really wanted to prove himself to the world that he's a great player and I think he's done that."
After years of demonstrating his potential in fits and starts, Donovan now relishes becoming a more consistent, complete player. Even if he was overlooked in favor of Dempsey for the bronze ball, and for man of the match honors in wins against Egypt and Spain, Donovan feels he has improved, if only in the consistency of his performances.
"This is becoming the player I want to become," Donovan said after the final. "And I'm proud of where I'm at right now. I've done a lot of internal work, and a lot of physical work, I've just really focused and spent a lot of time on it and it's good to see it pay."
Donovan's contract with MLS will expire after this season, and as he steps up his international game, he seems to have set his sights on yet another return to Europe. During the course of the Confederations Cup, Donovan hinted that Spain would be an ideal destination for him. If his play for the Americans over the past two weeks is any indication, a successful move to Europe could be just around the corner.
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.