Analysis / US

The tactical implications of Donovan’s rebirth

Photo: Barb Colligon

There are two separate CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments in a four year World Cup cycle. The first comes the year after the grand gala. It features each representative’s “A” Team and the top prize earns you a place at the following Confederation’s Cup table. The second, like this year’s staging of the event, conflicts with World Cup Qualifying as well as that very Confederation’s Cup. In other words, the tournament lacks much meaning. Consequently, one often has to search for deeper takeaways from the off-year Gold Cup.

It wasn’t hard to find that deeper meaning after the 12-month soap opera run known as, “One Life To Live, Soccer-Style.” Landon Donovan took his career into his own hands by announcing a prime-of-his-time sabbatical that most international soccer stars would dream about. But that unprecedented leave put his club and country in a bit of a pickle. While LA Galaxy seemed to take the move in stride. USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t quite as forgiving (perhaps influenced by the fact he was an international soccer star). Donovan’s time off meant he was cut out of spring and summer World Cup Qualifying efforts for the US, something that would have been unthinkable in past cycles.

It became clear that the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup would be Donovan’s Little Big Horn—either the place where he would show his teammates and his coach that he was ready to resume being a central figure to the team, or that he was just not up for it anymore. I think we’re ready to say he didn’t go all General Custer, right? With 3 goals and 6 assists in this tournament, he has well-surpassed his recent years’ production for the team in just a couple of weeks.

Klinsmann Getting Options

His performances will have created a quandary for Klinsmann though. Throughout the spring, the talk was that Graham Zusi has stepped in and performed admirably in Donovan’s absence. But, Zusi and Donovan have their differences.

Zusi is more comfortable riding the wing and swinging in crosses, while Donovan is more of a straight-up attacker. At times in the past, Klinsmann has tried to shoehorn Donovan into a wide role without much success. If staying wide doesn’t suit Donovan, Zusi clicks into place very well for the German gaffer.

Donovan’s Strong Performance

What has made Donovan so effective in this tournament? It’s quite simple, really. In Klinsmann’s system, he is occupying the role normally filled by Clint Dempsey. He is playing as a forward, but the one that does most of the heavy lifting being paired with a pure poacher in Chris Wondolowski. In fact, he’s being relied upon even more heavily than Dempsey in this system, because Wondo pales in comparison to Jozy Altidore in terms of hold-up play and possession.

One caveat that must be mentioned is that the general level of competition that the Americans have faced thus far is weaker than that of the Hexagonal with the only serious competition coming from Costa Rica in the group stage.

Still, it’s tough to deny that Donovan has been in his best USMNT form in recent memory. It could very well be the fact that playing as a creative presence closer to the goal is a role more suited to him.

What’s Klinsmann Going To Do?

Removing Zusi may not be the best plan going forward in September. His service from the right is solid, and it pays to have a solid crosser against CONCACAF competition that likes to bunker deep.

One thing that Klinsmann could do is revisit the Christmas Tree, the 4-3-2-1. The difference this time would be eschewing a cynical midfield for one that is better in possession. Against Jamaica in Kingston last September, Michael Bradley was not available. Klinsmann went with three holding midfield players—Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron, and Kyle Beckerman—and the US lost, 2-1.

Klinsmann could use both Donovan and Dempsey as supporting attackers that are asked to play more central. Zusi would then play a compact right midfield, but in shuttling down the right he would need to pick his opportunities carefully to prevent defensive liability. With four guys that side more attacking, two holding midfielders would be necessary to help stem counterattacks. Bradley and Jones would be the likely picks, but Cameron is another possibility, as well as Mix Diskerud who has made a name for himself in this tournament.

Klinsmann could also decide to rotate. Dempsey has been good, but having him, Zusi, or Donovan come off the bench based on need isn’t a bad thing at all. But so far in this tournament, Joe Corona and Alejandro Bedoya have been the two guys playing the Zusi role.

If, in an effort not to disturb on the field chemistry, Klinsmann doesn’t try Donovan on the right, he probably won’t have a chance to do so before the September qualifier in Costa Rica. If the winds of change within media circles are predicting Donovan could push Zusi out of a starting role, it might be time—on a relatively meaningless stage—to let Donovan prove he can still make it happen in a wide role.



  1. I like the 4-4-1-1 that Jurgen is using to great effect right now, and I hope and expect he’ll stick with it. At the full senior level, I’d like to see Donovan as the withdrawn forward and Dempsey at LM, with them interchanging for stretches of the match. With Fabian Johnson at LB, we shouldn’t need as much cover as on the right, where Zusi’s more balanced midfield play would be beneficial to an aging Cherundolo, an unsettled Chandler, or a compromised Evans or Parkhurst.
    I continue to be perplexed by those who claim that Donovan showed a failure of leadership by taking time off when he felt he needed it. Sometimes, leadership means making unpopular decisions and looking like the bad guy every once in a while. For all of the hemming and hawing, his decision has worked out perfectly and we are in great shape going into 2014.

  2. Actually, the winner of this year’s GC gets to meet the winner of the next one in a one-off game, the winner of that game then represents CONCACAF in the Confed Cup. The reasoning behind that was to make the “off year” GC more interesting and competitive.

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