Wednesday, September 7, 2005
We know that most sports fans harbor fantasies of being players, managers, and/or agents. Knowing that we can't do much to help our readers actually achieve any of the above ambitions, we've decided to do the next best thing and create an opportunity to get inside the minds of players, managers, and agents.

Every month or so, we'll pick a US player who is currently playing in MLS or elsewhere in the States and analyze where that player SHOULD be playing. We will bring in opinions from different members of the YA Staff who focus on different foreign leagues.

Each of us will discuss which team (if any) from the league we follow would make the best match for the player we're discussing. We'll try to take everything into consideration - from the needs, profile and financial resources of the team to the abilities, potential and personality of the player.

After we've had our discussion, we hope that you, our readers, will join in and add your opinions. As we did with the first 23 Tickets to Germany column, we'll feature some of the best comments in a follow-up article. OK, enough of the introduction, on to the matchmaking...

Landon Donovan

Unless and until he heads back to Europe and challenges himself on a bigger stage, Landon Donovan will always be open to the criticism that he is content with being a big fish in a relatively small pond. Fair or not, the perception is that he doesn't have what it takes to do what it takes to fight for his starting spot at a "big club".

He'd rather come back to the comfort of Southern California and the knowledge that he'll always have a place in the Galaxy's starting XI. So, if MLS isn't the answer, that leaves the question - where SHOULD Mr. Donovan being plying his trade as he prepares to enter the prime of his career?

England (Neal Thurman)

There is a full-on central midfield crisis in the Premiership. The reason I mention this is that I continue to work under the assumption that Donovan's best position is as the (or an) offensive midfielder in either a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond or 4-5-1.

So, who needs this sort of player?

It's easier to eliminate the teams that DON'T need this sort of player.

Chelsea has four or five of them, most notably Frank Lampard and the newly signed Essien so they're out. Manchester United seems to have (wisely) moved Wayne Rooney into this role despite the fact that he's listed as a striker.

Arsenal prefer that both of their central midfielders play at equal depth which would probably require more defense of Landon than is optimal - he would likely be a late-game replacement at Highbury if he could even make the bench.

Tottenham seems to have made it their goal to sign every promising midfielder in Western Europe so they're probably out. Finally, since Landon isn't Spanish and he isn't Steven Gerrard, it seems unlikely that he could carve out a regular spot with the European Champions at Anfield.

So, among the rest of the teams in the Premiership, who represents the best opportunity for Mr. Donovan?

My vote goes to Middlesbrough. OK, it's both geographically and spiritually miles away from Southern California and winter Teeside might give Landon flashbacks to Leverkusen...but from a footballing standpoint, there is a tremendous opportunity to be had. Boro never quite seem to be able to put all of the pieces together.

They have always had a hardworking and solid defense as befits a club from a working class town. Until this season, that solid defense was supplemented by some creativity in midfield provided by the likes of Juninho, Gaizka Mendieta, and Boudewijn Zenden, but no strikers of any quality.

Over the past two off-seasons Boro has developed an excellent left winger in Stewart Downing and brought in Aiyegbeni Yakubu, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Mark Viduka to solve their attacking woes.

Sadly, they did so at the cost of any creativity or speed in central midfield. Gone are Juninho, who quit on his teammates two seasons ago, and Zenden, who left for Liverpool. Mendieta is talented, but has suffered injuries and would probably be better used on the right wing.

Signing the relatively inexpensive - at least by English standards - Donovan would give Boro that all-important "straw that stirs the drink". He could slot in behind Yakubu and Jimmy Floyd/Viduka and present a second speedy option on offense to supplement Downing's craft. Yakubu would have someone to work off of on fast breaks instead of having to run up front all by himself while he waits for Viduka and his more than generous posterior to join the play.

The combination of those three players marauding through the midfield would open up spaces for the, um, less fleet-of-foot strikers on Boro's roster. JFH and Viduka would have that many more chances in space. Boro might even scare some people on offense instead of playing for draws on the road and even occasionally at home.

From Donovan's standpoint, the biggest benefit would be the need to step up the technical and mental side of his game to cope with the faster pace of play and the higher quality of the defenders.

If he plans to be one of our leaders against Mexico in qualifying and against the European and South American powers during the World Cup, these are lessons that he must learn. And while Californians (and even Londoners) might not agree, at least by going to Boro, he'd be going to a place where they speak his native language and not German.

Holland (Greg Seltzer)

This will hardly come as a shock to anyone who knows me, so I'll just get straight to the point: Landon Donovan needs to come play for Ajax. Certainly, the Los Angeles star is a natural fit for Dutch soccer, where attacking 4-3-3 schemes are the norm. Furthermore, Donovan could play either in a creative midfield role or as a right winger without any drop-off in quality.

Playing centrally atop the midfield triangle would allow Donovan to direct offensive traffic with three targets ahead of him, while allowing a very free role. He could also arrive late into the area, teeing up cutbacks, rebounds and loose balls by the net-full. As a winger, Donovan would enjoy the room to run at defenders, with the option of cutting in or breaking wide to fire a pinpoint cross - think Brian McBride's goal against Portugal during World Cup 2002 as the perfect example of a typical Eredivisie right forward's repertoire.

Is Ajax the only Eredivisie team that would provide a win-win situation for both sides? No.

Defending champs PSV Eindhoven, currently falling apart at the transfer seams, could plug him straight into a lineup that includes international running mate DaMarcus Beasley. Feyenoord would kill to team him up with Salomon Kalou and Dirk Kuijt... of course, they are far too cheap to go after him. Last season darlings AZ Alkmaar could go make a surprise swoop, but only after selling midfield backbone Denny Landzaat. Short of that, Dutch clubs will not be able to offer up enough scratch to land Donovan (presumably between €6-10 million). So he fits everywhere tactically, just not financially...except one place: Amsterdam.

From a pedigree standpoint, Ajax needs no introduction. Since 1966, they have claimed 19 of 40 Eredivisie titles, and battled for the prize until the final day another seven times. This kind of domestic success translates into annual tickets to prestigious UEFA competitions. Aside from a 1991 ban, they have not missed out on Europe in four decades.

They have won four European Cups, and dating back to 1987 are the only team on the continent to have earned crowns from the Champions League, UEFA Cup, the now defunct Cup Winners Cup and the World Club Cup (now known as the InterContinental Cup)... but enough tiresome bragging, let's talk system.

Despite his aforementioned versatility, Donovan would be brought to Amsterdam to man right wing under my plan. This is largely based on the club's current need, but it would also help solidify the Californian's already well-rounded game and sharpen his attack instincts.

When injuries hit the middle, he can easily slide over, allowing others to work the flank. Current starter Steven Pienaar is not a pure winger and often hesitates in attack like any natural two-way midfielder would, while cool finisher Mauro Rosales really needs to sign up for a crossing class.

Donovan probably locks down the starting job inside of four weeks with this group, pushing Pienaar back into his proper position. His job would be to make darting runs into space for lead passes, go at defenders with the ball at his feet, set up the striker with his good foot and attack the far post when Ryan Babel is working the left side. I know what you're thinking: 'He does all that stuff!' Yes, yes he does. But wait, it gets better.

We all know Donovan was at odds with life in Germany, but Amsterdam has a milder climate than Germany and everyone speaks English. I even know a couple places where he can get some top notch enchiladas if it makes him feel more at home.

American sitcoms and movies are shown in English with Dutch subtitles, and the town has some great English bookstores. Beasley, Cory Gibbs and John O'Brien are all within an hour and a half, and all reside in the same mobile phone area code. Perhaps more importantly, guiding light Earnie Stewart is nearby.

The US golden boy should be a Yank Abroad again, give the big time an honest shot. Be all he can be, and all that jazz. He should be able to hit double figures in both goals and assists during a full season with the Sons of God, working up a buzz reminiscent of former Ajax terror Marc Overmars (who went on to play for Arsenal and Barcelona, mind you).

Bottom line: If Ajax advance to the knockout phase of the Champions League, Landon Donovan should hop across the pond this winter and give it another go.


So now we've had our shot at managing Landon's career.

Neal has sent him off to Boro to toughen up in the Premiership and ignite an offense with many talented pieces, but no cohesion. Greg has Landon headed to Amsterdam, where he can compete for championships at a higher level than in the MLS and play in the Champions League while he's attending the Ajax finishing school for world class attacking players.

Now we'd like to hear your thoughts. If you think there's a better fit for him in either England or Holland, let us know about that. If you have an opinion on where he might fit in other leagues (e.g., Spain, Italy, Portugal, France, and even Germany) we'd like to hear about that too.

We'll read your comments and write a column[endlink] just like we did for the 23 Tickets to Germany feature. Click§ion=generalHERE[endlink] to post your comments.

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