Landon Donovan: The Dark Knight

Despite his American heroics and success, Donovan might not be the hero the US needs right now
by Herb Scribner   |   Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Landon Donovan as The Dark Knight

There’s a quote towards the end of the film The Dark Knight when Lt. Jim Gordon says of Batman: “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

I can’t think of another American player this applies to better than Landon Donovan. He’s the hero that U.S. soccer deserves, but not the one it needs right now.

On Jan. 4, for Donovan’s re-debut into the EPL, I tweeted “Donovan redebuting for Everton at 3 p.m. on @FoxSoccer. Going to be epic. Hope to see our American hero slash through Goodison Park.”

Not only was this tweet retweeted by Fox Soccer and others, but it sparked conversation between myself and another denizen of the Twittersphere. My tweep, who shall remain anonymous, asked me what qualifies Donovan as a hero, other than just winning the “all important MLS Cup.”

It got me thinking. I always accepted Donovan as a hero for U.S. soccer. I mean, who can really deny his last-minute goals in the 2010 World Cup as being acts of heroism? He saved the team and came to its rescue right when it needed it most. More than that, the general public has taken-to Donovan and put him on a pedestal -- as an American sporting hero.

But really, Donovan isn’t the hero we all expect him to be. Like The Dark Knight reference suggests, Donovan is the hero that U.S. soccer deserves. He’s fast-paced, technically gifted, hyper-competitive and he knows the game well. He knows how things work and how to handle opponents. He’s an excellent player and likely the best American soccer player of all time. Even Juergen Klinsmann candidly acknowledged that for U.S. soccer to succeed at the highest levels of the game, it would need 10 Donovans. Donovan is clearly a player on his own level as far the U.S. Men’s National Team is concerned.

Even though American soccer fans and culture deserve Donovan, he isn’t the hero that the nation needs right now. Not only are his talents being wasted with a current national team side that -- aside from the occasional shining player like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard or Jermaine Jones who have all found European success -- is more or less sub-par and is still trying to find itself.

I’m not saying that Donovan’s talents aren’t appreciated, because they certainly are. But it’s important to realize he’s nearly 30 now (and 32 during the 2014 World Cup) and that he’s coming up to the start of the latter stages of his career and he won’t be around forever. Soon enough, he will be gone, likely attempting commentary for ESPN or coaching, and there will be no one of his caliber to fill the void.

See with Donovan, unlike Batman, there is no current second-fiddle or prodigal apprentice to take up the mantle. Fans and MLS executives have put a lot of faith in Donovan; all the chips are “in” for him and this generation to succeed. You might even say their best bet has passed, with the failed 2010 World Cup run.

He remains however, the best thing to happen to U.S. soccer, and we all know it. But not enough of us, it would appear, are thinking about what, or rather who, comes next. Who can, realistically, become the new Donovan? Time and again American fans are disappointed with how American players are developing. Those billed to be the ”next Donovan” don’t live up to the standard or don’t get a chance to show it. Look at Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi, a late-bloomer who had a stellar 2011 campaign and can be likened to Donovan. The issue: he’s 23 and just now getting a chance to play for the national team. He’s almost assuredly not going to develop to Donovan’s level, who is just six years older.

Donovan has unintentionally created another significant problem as well. His success in the US and abroad now casts a giant shadow for future players to play within. For years to come, critics will compare the best American players’ performances to that of Donovan.

And despite recently putting his U.S. Men’s National Team duties to the backburner -- whether due to LA Galaxy post-season commitments or illness -- when World Cup qualifying starts and the important games come up, Donovan will be in the thick of things, performing like he always has and likely so for a few more years after 2014.

But once he can’t compete anymore, once he can’t protect the team with late-minute heroics, it becomes a larger issue. Who’s going to step up and become the USMNT’s game-changer? Who’s going to bring the attention that Donovan gathers for the team? Who’s going to control the game and lead the attacking players the way Donovan does? There isn’t anyone in sight down the pipeline that suggests so. Possibly Brek Shea if he develops further. He’s only 21 however and again Donovan had more experience by then. Shea is also more of an athletically gifted player and less a leader than Donovan, he likely won’t become as dominant for the national team.

Is there a solution? If so, it can’t be found in front of us as there just doesn’t seem an American starlet that will blossom at the same time that Donovan will likely ebb. Many are too justifiably engrossed on what Donovan will do next, rather than what comes next for the US Men’s National Team program - After Donovan (AD).


UMass Amherst
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Club Foreign:
FC Barcelona
SN managing editor and award-winning journalist, Herb has always been known as "The Soccer Guy" wherever he goes. He's a leftback in most outdoor and indoor leagues. He also writes for Deseret News National.