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Graham Zusi keeps making it harder for Landon Donovan to get back into U.S. national team

Jun 19, 2013, 12:48 PM EDT

Graham Zusi, Arnold Peralta AP

SANDY, Utah – The more Graham Zusi delivers performances like the one in Tuesday’s second half, when the Americans finally punched a hole in the Honduran defensive dam, the more Landon Donovan’s return to the national team scene disappears into doubt.

Donovan is on the provisional roster for the Gold Cup, and he will probably be called once the 23-man roster is handed into CONCACAF – and presumably made public that day – on June 27.

But there is a little bud of a theory developing around the U.S. camp that Donovan’s estrangement could become more or less permanent, that the team is doing fine without him – and it’s hard to argue the point at the moment. That could change when the opposition improves, but for now …

It’s certainly fair to debate whether Donovan’s presence next year in Brazil – We can all agree that the United States is going, right? – would be an asset. If he can add just a little more polish to his game with the Galaxy, folding in more consistency to the performances, Donovan would certainly be an upgrade over other attackers in the pool now appearing regularly on Jurgen Klinsmann’s depth chart.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings vs. Honduras)

Klinsmann clearly isn’t happy with the message Donovan delivered last year through some of the player’s choices regarding the national team. Donovan maintains that he did what he needed to do to prolong his career – and it’s hard to argue that point, too.

But if Klinsmann wants to cut ties in a bigger way … well, what better time to do so than now? Take the PR hit now before the relatively low-profile Gold Cup, get it over with and move on well ahead of next year’s World Cup, when Donovan’s roster omission would potentially become a talking point distraction.

Which brings us back to Zusi, who was nominal in presence through the first 45 against Honduras beyond those set piece dandies (something else he does expertly, helping to mitigate Donovan’s absence). Zusi isn’t quite as versatile as Donovan, unable to deliver crosses with either foot the way Donovan can. We saw it once Tuesday as the Sporting KC attacker got into position along the left but badly over-hit a centering ball.

(MORE: What we learned about the United States in Tuesday’s win)

Zusi also misses Donovan’s burst of speed and instincts near goal, too. But while the dropoff is noticeable in those areas, it certainly isn’t fierce. Plus, other elements of Zusi’s game, the tidy work in tight spots, the defensive tracking and the overall awareness, are roughly equal.

(Talking about awareness: How sweet was that dummy to help spring Fabian Johnson, which set up Jozy Altidore’s game winner?)

Zusi was a major influence on the U.S. attack throughout the second half; almost everything dangerous after the break went through him at some point, arranging balls for Clint Dempsey, aiming more of the dead-eye restarts toward Omar Gonzalez and finding more of the spaces against a tiring Honduran defense.

(Some of his slow first half was about Brad Evans, who was quite conservative along the right; a bigger push from the makeshift U.S. outside back would have forced Honduran defenders into choices, which would have pried open more room to roam for Zusi.)

Either way, here’s how the MLS All-Star explained the change from first half to second:

“It was a gritty game [early], very physical, not a whole lot going on,” Zusi said. “A lot of possession changes toward the middle of the field. I think our play in the first half wore them down a little bit and it allowed us, in the second half, to spread the field a little bit and get in behind them a little more often. So the second half we could be more dangerous in creating opportunities.”

  1. danielofthedale - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:02 PM

    I think Landon’s best spot right now is as a super sub. I think he could bring something off that we don’t have much of right now and could be a real game changer in the last half hour.

  2. travishenryskid - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    Ehhh, I’ll take Donovan over Zusi 10 times out of 10. He made a couple of nice plays yesterday, but there were a lot of times you were wishing there was someone better in his spot.

  3. drewvt6 - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    This is crazy talk. Zusi can’t even defend Panamanian or Honduras attackers. How the f is he going to defend without desperate fouls against Spain, Germany, England, Brazil, Argentina, Holland, France, Belgium, Nigeria, Japan, Korea, Uruguay, Ecuador, Columbia, Mexico, etc? Zusi takes every last ounce of effort to get a half step past a Jamaican defender to deliver a cross, he’ll never get crosses off against high level teams. Donovan on the other hand has world class separation speed, he’s played at the highest levels and in the biggest tournaments and performed. He may not be at the pinnacle of his game now, but he’ll be a far better option than Zusi by next summer.

    The reality is, the raised level of our team’s play will allow Donovan to take on less responsibilities, like he had in his stints with Everton during which time he looked fantastic.

  4. charliej11 - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    I love Zusi and think he should keep starting.
    There is no one who works in the biz who would take Zusi over Donovan.

    Plus, there are two winger positions and EJ didn’t play well last night. He didn’t play well in Seattle either, walked the whole second half, but he scored so the media was all over how great he played.

    The idea that based on quality LD should be a sub or not on the team at all is just dumb. Beyond dumb. No one the US can field runs the counter better than him. We really don’t have a counter attack now. No one can take over a game except him either. IF they could why didn’t they last night. Honduras’ D wasn’t weak like Panama, but it wasn’t lock down tight either.

    Last night’s game was ripe for someone to be a superstar….there were none to be found.

  5. jpi75 - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    The strength of Zusi’s game is his crossing and set piece delivery. The strength of EJ’s game is his speed and ability to take players on one-on-one. If Donovan can find his form, he has both their strengths and adds more creativity to our attack. But that’s if he finds his form. In the meantime, I’ll hope that Brek finds his form, our top choice right backs get healthy, Omar stops making bone-headed decisions, and that injuries only ravage our adversaries.

    • charliej11 - Jun 19, 2013 at 2:54 PM

      I don’t get this…if LD can find his form. He won the MLS Cup in December. Virutally everyone agrees LA was the best team.

      Are you thinking he was not a big part of that ? That LA could have benched him ?
      Are you thinking, eh anyone can do that ?

      • jpi75 - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:31 PM

        I’m not saying that LD is Brek and lost in the injury wilderness for the last year and half. But has LD played this spring like he did last fall?

  6. mkbryant3 - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    I think I’m more of a 9 out of 10, Donovan over Zusi. Zusi had a solid game, yes, but Donovan can be so much more dangerous than Zusi.

    I commend the US team for a solid run recently, but as we all know, there will be many injuries between now and Brazil. I see Donovan on that plane, if just to be a supersub.

    And by “bud of a theory”, do you mean from the players or journalists?

    Still, it’s great to be able to have these debates. Soccer has come a loooong way in this country. I still haven’t gotten over the pain of watching Mike Burns for the US at RB. Ugh.

  7. nygiantstones - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:47 PM

    I’m sorry, but this is a laughable post. Zusi is OK, but he’s nowhere near the talent Donovan is. Zusi is a fill-in, a placeholder for a player that has played in Europe, and is the all-time goal and assist leader for the US national team. The only advantage Zusi holds over Donovan is that he’s 5 years younger. Donovan also has a goal every 3 matches in US appearances, Zusi so far has one goal in 13 appearances. Maybe after the World Cup in Brazil, we can start talking about Donovan becoming a super sub and giving way to Zusi’s further development. The US isn’t strong enough overall to be starting a Zusi talent against International teams when we have Donovan.

  8. nelwyn57 - Jun 19, 2013 at 1:49 PM

    This is silly – Zusi is not doing anything Landon can’t do. And LD can do more and can do it against much tougher competition than Panama and Honduras. He has proven it. And he has been playing much, much better than he is being given credit for. And he has proven to be clutch at World Cups. Why wouldn’t you add him to the team? We are not so good that we can turn away great players because someone has come along who might (?) be better?

    And is this really being circulated around US camp? By whom? Players, coaches? That’s nuts Beasley himself just said they all know LD belongs with them.

    • nelwyn57 - Jun 19, 2013 at 2:00 PM

      Actually I misspoke when I said “someone has come along who might be better” – not at all what I meant because Zusi is obviously NOT better than LD. I meant to write “because someone has come along who had a decent game against Panama and Honduras.”

  9. lyleoross - Jun 19, 2013 at 2:36 PM

    Landon Donovan represents what is wrong with U.S. soccer development. Anyone who thinks we’ve performed at the level we should have over the past fifteen years, given our size and investment, is going against the national and international opinion on where we should be. LD is fast and strong, and he is technically adept at crossing from either foot. He is neither tactical, nor inventive. That’s why he fails when he goes to Europe. We have a system that selects fast strong players, and teaches them technical skills. It doesn’t teach them (or it hasn’t in the past) to play control ball under pressure.
    Tiki-taka, or the beautiful game, or some iteration of that style is the only way to compete at the highest levels. LD does not represent that, and frankly, he’s to old to go there. You are much more likely to get there with Zusi, no matter what weaknesses he might have.
    You also have to ask the question, why did Landon check out? Was it because JK was going to a more modern style, and he wants to do something else? So, if you bring him back, are you bringing in a player that has a different philosophy than what you’re building?

    • charliej11 - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:07 PM

      And we found the “little bud of a theory”…..

      By he fails when he goes to Europe, lyleross means when you Google “Everton wants Donovan” you only get “About 194,000 results (0.29 seconds)”

      Maybe he means that US soccer failed in not having Donovan play in college like Zusi did ?…….I love the college system too……ok, now I am just trolling……

      • lyleoross - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:02 PM

        So you’re saying that Donovan has had a stellar European career? The fact that servers are fast, or that there are a lot of fans that want Donovan at Everton doesn’t mean he’s a valuable asset. I want Dempsey to be a key part of Man U. and to go to Champions, that doesn’t much cut it.

        College has nothing to do with it, style of play does. Donovan has skill, strength, and speed. That isn’t enough. I’m not even advocating for Zusi, simply a different attitude and style of play. I do believe that with younger more adaptable players you are more likely to get a change in style. IM feeble opinion, the current team iteration is closer to what the U.
        S. needs than an iteration with Donovan.

        Of course that still leaves the question of motivation, why Donovan bugged out, and other unaddressed issues about team dynamic and play unanswered. Donovan appears to be someplace that the U.S. squad isn’t. One only has to look at Mexico to realize how much team dynamic matters.

    • nelwyn57 - Jun 19, 2013 at 5:54 PM

      Landon “checked out” because he was worn out – from playing nonstop soccer for about 10 years. And up until Klinsi took over, LD was playing in virtually EVERY national team game that was had – important and fill-in friendlies. For a solid 10 years he played in every game. Then add in his off-season loans. He was worn out from giving his all over those years – to the tune that he played more minutes of international soccer than any other player in the world.

      And now he deserves to be pushed to the curb? I guess the lesson is: if you don’t take care of yourself (which is what LD decided he HAD to do, thus the break of 4 months) no one else will and instead they’ll wear you down and toss you aside when they think they have no use for you.

      And Landon’s game is not strictly based on speed; he is tactical and inventive, among many other things. You must not be really paying attention to what the man does on the field nor how other teams/players/coaches regard him.

      • lyleoross - Jun 20, 2013 at 1:44 PM

        I’m gonna disagree with you. First, the notion that LD has had so much pressure that he needed to walk away is a tad simplistic. One only has to compare him to other world class players, and what they’ve done relative to “pressure” to see the difference. You might argue that it’s an age thing, but then you are conceding the author’s point. Second, if your measure of creativity, or inventiveness is against American players, then yes, Donovan is creative and inventive, if your measure is against the world, then no, he is woefully inadequate. Even if you compare him to play in CONCACAF, he is good, but not great. There are two or three players from the Mexican squad alone who are better, and while they are arguably the best CONCACAF has to offer, that is just a start.

        You might make an argument that if he’d had a better supporting cast, and a better coaching strategy, then you’d have seen more from him, but that is contradicted by his performance in Europe, where presumably he was in a good environment.

        At some point you have to think about where the club is going, even if you set aside everything else and think about him as what he is, an older, non-motivated player, you need to think about what you’re going to get out of that, what message you send to the rest of the team, and how he might impact the team dynamic? In his last games with the national squad, he was more of a distraction than a benefit. Zusi may not be the guy, but neither is Donovan.

        JK is moving the team in a new direction from where we have been. He is choosing players, old and new, who he feels fit that strategy. The fact is that if he feels Donovan can contribute to that strategy, Donovan will be on the team come next summer. I’ll be a little surprised if that happens.

      • wandmdave - Jun 20, 2013 at 4:21 PM

        “I guess the lesson is: if you don’t take care of yourself (which is what LD decided he HAD to do, thus the break of 4 months) no one else will and instead they’ll wear you down and toss you aside when they think they have no use for you.”

        Did you just start watching professional sports yesterday? That is what happens to all players. If they no longer fit into the team for whatever reason be it performance, chemistry, or something else they get let go.

      • wandmdave - Jun 20, 2013 at 4:23 PM

        Not saying Donovan deserves the boot yet or not but certainly if the coach thinks his form or fitness is bad or if his inclusion will effect team chemistry then the coach has the right and imho the responsibility to kick him to the curb.

  10. midtec2005 - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:16 PM

    LD is good, but I think this discussion is missing the real point. We should be talking about LD or Fabian Johnson/Eddie Johnson. Zusi is better than both of those two. So we should be talking about starting LD and Zusi at the same time.

    Turning this into a Zusi or donovan argument is also stupid. Zusi has shown time and again to be a great player for us, but he’s a different type of player than Donovan. Now you have fans on here claiming that Zusi sucks and we should bring back LD, that doesn’t make sense. Zusi is awesome, and I bet he has Europe in his near future if he wants it.

    • jpan007 - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:58 PM

      Didn’t you know? Early in this year we went to Englad, and try out for a EPL and they rejected him

      • midtec2005 - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:52 PM

        “and they rejected him”

        No they didn’t, a trial for one team that didn’t work out isn’t “The EPL rejecting someone” Don’t be silly.

  11. docstraw - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:20 PM

    I think Donovan’s best days are behind in him a US shirt. Haven’t seen the difference-maker Donovan since the 2010 WC. He looked to me like he had lost a step at the Gold Cup in 2011 and I was not all that impressed by what I have seen over the past couple of years. Zusi is a not a like for like replacement for Landon but I thought he did some really nice things in the game yesterday. Maybe Landon has a future as a super-sub but with the shift towards a team built around Bradley/Dempsey/Altidore would it be a distraction to the group to have Landon on the bench? Klinsmann has cultivated a team personality and culture and it doesn’t seem to include Donovan. He would have to play like a world-beater to nudge his way on to the team at this point.

    • midtec2005 - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:24 PM

      If I remember correctly, Cobi Jones served as a super sub near the end of his career and was fantastic at doing it. There’s nothing a big, tired defender hates more than a small quick guy coming on fresh at the end of a game.

  12. danielofthedale - Jun 19, 2013 at 3:39 PM

    Over the last season and half, Landon has looked good when Robbie Keane is playing and rather pedestrian when Keane is out. Keane and Omar were the two most important players on the Galaxy last season and I would say this season as well. He has always been prone to slip in and out games for long period of times and he seems to do that even more these days. His game has become more inconsistent as well. Sure he still show flashes of the player he was in 2010 but those moments are becoming fewer and fewer. People still have the idea of Landon Donovan from 2002-2010 but he is older and not the same player.

    So I will stick with my thought that I would start both Zusi and Fabian Johnson over Landon. That does not mean they are better than Landon at his best just better than him right now. And that is just like is said right now, today, June 19th. Landon can have a great Gold Cup, score some goals have a few assist and the conversation changes.

  13. jpan007 - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:06 PM

    Only in the USA, we would trade some Zusi’s good crosses and few good set pieces for a someone scoring goals.
    it’s funny during the last night game there was a moment when Zusi was on the penalty box he didn’t take a shot on goal, he chose to send a cross and a really bad one. lol

  14. interesting29 - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:25 PM

    Fabian Johnson is most likely will be at the left back, with Beasley as an option. Otherwise, Eddie Johnson is just not great, he keeps losing balls in midfield, and against a strong defense, he would not be a very helpful addition. Zusi can remain on the right, but LD definitely can go to the left. That makes it a more dangerous pairing.

    • midtec2005 - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:53 PM

      Finally, someone else gets it.

  15. spikenyc - Jun 19, 2013 at 4:36 PM

    Klinsmann sent his message to Landon just as he did to Jozy last year. He’ll invite him to the Gold Cup, then, barring a complete flame out, will be able to say “Landon’s put in the work and now I think he’s ready to return to the Qualifying team.” LD will be back for September and Klinsmann will be able to take all the credit, deserved or not.

  16. geojock - Jun 19, 2013 at 7:32 PM

    Zusi defending is a joke. I know LD isnt exactly great either, but I have seen Zusi look foolish and/or commit some bad fouls. I love Zusi’s evolution and I am not sure where donovan is at now, but Zusi is far from perfect.

  17. nelwyn57 - Jun 19, 2013 at 7:43 PM

    Besides, why does it have to be either/or? Why not both. It’s called developing DEPTH. Perhaps Zusi starts one game, Donovan starts another. Or we use different formations. Let’s not forget: LD can play multiple positions.

    • midtec2005 - Jun 19, 2013 at 9:45 PM

      Zusi can too, but he’s not going to play CAM over Dempsey… ever. But you’re absolutely right. LD has all of these goals, but how many of them actually came when he was playing on the wing? He played in the middle of the park A LOT.

  18. pjbowmaster - Jun 19, 2013 at 9:50 PM

    I still contend that the relationship between Klinsmann and Donovan was destroyed at Bayern Munich in 2009. This is not about the player’s quality. It’s personal……

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