Work in Sports
He still doesn't get it
U.S. coach once again underutilizing his talent
ADELAIDE, Australia -- What more can Landon Donovan do? Despite coming off the bench to spark a moribund American offense and score a goal in last Tuesday's win-or-go-home victory against Kuwait, the 18-year-old whiz kid will almost surely begin Saturday's quarterfinal against Japan firmly planted on the pine.
Why? Good question. While Donovan wasn't perfect against Kuwait -- he missed a couple of shots that he should have finished before finally scoring -- he showed the kind of creative flair and error-free distribution that the U.S. had sorely needed at the attacking midfield position.
Yet coach Clive Charles continues to underestimate Donovan, arguing, in essence, that the youngster is a one-dimensional player. "I put Landon on the field when Landon can do well," Charles said on Friday. "I didn't play him against Cameroon and the Czech Republic because the team was playing very well and creating a lot of opportunities. We weren't creating many opportunities against Kuwait because Kuwait dropped off and gave us all this room. So I said to Landon, 'Go on and take advantage of it.' If you give Landon space and time, then he'll murder you."
Translation: ain't gonna happen.
For some reason, Charles still clings to the wrong-headed ideas that 1) he needs to start a "target" man in forward Conor Casey, and 2) if Donovan starts, it would have to be at one of the forward spots. In fact, he's best-suited to replace the unspectacular Pete Vagenas as an attacking mid.
Though Donovan showed he's ideally cast for that position against Kuwait, Charles stubbornly maintains that it won't affect his lineup decisions for Japan: "Just because somebody has come on and played particularly well, regardless of who it is" -- he's referring to Donovan -- "you still have to look at each game as your whole season. If we had 55 games to go, [starting Donovan would be] no problem. But one bad game and you're out."
In other words, despite all evidence to the contrary, Charles still doesn't think Donovan is ready. But when you have a team that's capable of winning a medal (and the U.S. most definitely is), refusing to start your best players could make all the difference. As one team insider says, "Clive Charles has a Lamborghini here, and he's driving it 30 miles an hour."
Sports Illustrated staff writer Grant Wahl is in Australia covering the soccer competition for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Wahl's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.