Monday, February 22, 2010

LD's Everton Adventure

Landon Donovan showed up at Everton FC in Liverpool the first week of January facing a veritable trial by fire. Everton, laid low for most of the fall with injuries and poor results, was embarking on a two month span during which the team would face fixtures with Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham (i.e., all 6 of the top 6 teams), as well as a tie with Sporting Lisbon in the Europa League and an FA Cup match. Donovan was about to be thrown into the deep end of the pool in the best league in Europe.
The incredibly crafty manager of Everton, David Moyes, inked a loan deal with the LA Galaxy and MLS to bring the USA international to the Toffees for 10 weeks prior to the start of the MLS season in March. The rationale was clear: Moyes needed a midfielder with Donovan's pace and goal-scoring potential to fill in for some injured stars, and Landon needed to keep himself match-fit and tested prior to the FIFA World Cup this summer.
It was a bit of a risky move for both player and manager. Donovan has been a star in the MLS and in international football, but a bit of a dud in Europe after two stints with big-name German clubs. Another bad experience in Europe would likely have tainted LD forever, and seriously hurt his confidence level going into the World Cup this summer. And a bad run of form from Everton in January and February could have sent the Toffees into a potential relegation battle at the end of the season.
Instead, Landon has been one of the great signings of the last transfer window. With Donovan starting (generally on the right wing), Everton drew Arsenal away, beat City, beat Sunderland, beat Wigan away, and lost a heart-breaking derby with Liverpool 1-0. Last week, the Toffees came from behind to beat league-leaders Chelsea 2-1 at Goodison Park, and this week thoroughly defeated last year's champion Manchester United 3-1. In between those league matches, they lost a close FA Cup game with surprising Birmingham, but beat Sporting Lisbon 2-1 in the first leg of their Europa league tie.
As of today, Everton are 8th in the table with their sights on a top-6 finish and potentially a spot in Europe. The Everton fans voted Donovan "Player of the Month" for January. The English press, never too keen on USA football imports, have been gushing praise and arguing for a long-term transfer.
Moyes has assembled a really talented squad of smart, skillful footballers at Everton: South African international Steven Piennar, Australian Tim Cahill, former Man. U. striker Louis Saha, wild-haired Belgian Marouani Fellaini, Phil Neville, and others. Donovan fits right in with that crowd, and his pace and cleverness have tormented some of the best defenders in the Premiership. While he hasn't scored a lot of goals (just one), he's forced defenders to deal with his threatening runs, and by doing so he has opened up the middle of the field for Saha, Cahill and Fellaini.
Everton played five midfielders against United and attacked throughout the match. Their overlapping runs, quick passing, and flowing football kept United on their heels for much of the match. There was a great sequence around the 35th minute when the Toffee midfielders passed, moved, changed positions, and made runs in a way that looked more like Spain than a middle-table English side. Everton's winner came off another flowing sequence. Piennar exchanged passes with Donovan down the left side, picked up the ball near the touch line and sent a sharp, low cross to a perfectly-positioned Dan Gosling at the far post, who tapped in for 2-1. To Moyes' credit, he had substituted Gosling for Bilyaletdinov (who scored the equalizer in the first half) just five minutes earlier, and his next sub, 18 year old Jack Roswell, scored Everton's third.
If you count the Europa and FA Cup matches as league matches, Everton have won 19 of a possible 27 points with Landon on the field, and 16 of 21 possible points in the league. I think the Everton faithful would have been expecting 7 or 8 points in those league matches. It has been a great run of form for a team that has been spotty all season. Whether they can do better than 7th or 8th in the table is more a matter of the teams above them, but another Europa League place next season is not out of reach.
What of Donovan's future? He's scheduled to return to LA Galaxy in mid-March for the start of the MLS season. During the balance of his loan, he'll see action against Tottenham, Hull and perhaps Birmingham in the Premiership, the second leg of the Europa League tie in Lisbon, and perhaps another juicy Europa League match in March (against either Athletico in Madrid or Galatasaray in Istanbul) if Everton get through to the round of 16. Given that he'll only be playing in MLS for less than 2 months before he breaks for the World Cup camp, I can't see why, short of an injury fear, he doesn't petition for extension of the loan at Everton.
An outright transfer is going to be dicey. The MLS, which owns his contract, is going to want more than the $10MM they got from Hull for Altidore considering that Donovan is their best marketing asset now that Beckham is semi-retired; and Everton has not generally been a big, splashy player in the transfer market. In addition, Everton are stacked at midfield, assuming everyone was healthy. Oh, and Landon is 28 years old, not a spring chicken by footballing standards.
I think it's more likely that after his great run in the Premiership, and assuming he has a good-to-very good World Cup, he gets interest from the likes of Manchester City, for whom a $15MM transfer would be peanuts, and who desperately need a clever wing player with pace like LD. That would be a shame. I think the combination of great club, great fans, and great manager at Everton would be ideal for him. But it just doesn't seem to be in the cards.
So, tune in this Sunday morning to the Fox Soccer Channel and watch Landon and the Toffees vs. Spurs. Should be a fantastic match. And, unfortunately, it might be one of your last chances to see Donovan in Everton blue.