LONDON – Landon Donovan knows better than anyone that his steps into the history books of the United States national team on Wednesday will do nothing to silence his detractors.
Barring unexpected incident, the 26-year-old will claim his 100th international cap at the sport's most famous venue, the modern incarnation of the hallowed site that is Wembley Stadium. It will be a fitting reward for a player who has served his country with pride and productivity since 2000 and who tops the all-time national goal-scoring charts with 35.
Yet there are many who are unprepared to give Donovan any credit, preferring to pillory him with accusations that he fails to deliver on the big occasion.
The main sticking point for many U.S. fans is his performance in the 2006 World Cup, which ended in shattered hopes and a winless record for a United States team of which much was anticipated. Donovan carried the burden of responsibility in the eyes of many, who expected a repeat of his outstanding efforts in Japan and South Korea four years earlier when the Americans qualified for the quarterfinals.
A worse crime in the eyes of Donovan's critics was his failure to become a major star in Europe after joining German Bundesliga team Bayer Leverkusen at the age of 17. He returned to California on loan after two years and failed to hold down a starting role in a final attempt to succeed in Germany during the 2004-05 season.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
Several U.S. players have much to gain from Wednesday’s friendly against England at Wembley Stadium. Here are the members of Bob Bradley’s squad with the most to prove against David Beckham, John Terry, Frank Lampard and Co.
Michael Bradley. The 20-year-old midfielder has made huge strides since moving to Europe. He had a sensational season with Heerenveen in Holland and is tipped for a big move to the English Premier League this summer. His battle with Steven Gerrard in the center of the park will give him the chance to show an English audience what he can do.
Brad Guzan. The Chivas USA goalkeeper saw his dream of a Premier League move with Aston Villa put on hold when he was denied a work permit at the end of last season. However, as he continues to rack up international appearances, he should soon qualify for a visa automatically. Second-half action would offer a chance to silence critics who claim he's been mentally affected by the non-transfer.
Eddie Johnson. Johnson had high hopes after leaving Major League Soccer’s Kansas City Wizards to join EPL strugglers Fulham. But with the club mired in an ultimately successful relegation fight, he failed to hold down a starting place. He has already been labeled a likely bust in England.
So is he arguably the finest player in the history of the U.S. national team, or North American soccer's greatest underachiever?
That can't properly be answered until much nearer the end of his career. Donovan has at least two World Cups left in him, and given how his reputation was sullied in 2006, it is not unreasonable to suggest his legacy could be revived or destroyed depending on his efforts in South Africa in 2010 and Brazil in 2014.
At the club level, personal factors – his actress wife Bianca's work commitments are in California – mean a move back to Europe is unlikely in the short term. However, if he and David Beckham can revive the fortunes of the Los Angeles Galaxy and turn that team into the dominant force in Major League Soccer, then it will be hard to question his career choices.
Either way, Donovan is in no mood to question himself just now and can barely wait to reach three figures for Bob Bradley's team.
"I am able to enjoy this one a little bit more because it is a friendly," Donovan said. "If it was a competitive game, my mind would be on other things. Even so, I am not coming here to celebrate and we want to come and win the game and show we can do well against a team like England.
"It will be exciting to reach 100 caps. I still can't quite believe it. It is something to be proud of, but there is still a lot I want to achieve in my international career and I have high hopes for this team."
Whatever is said on the outside, Bradley is one man who you will never hear utter a bad word about Donovan. He values the influence Donovan has on the squad, especially on teams where the roster is primarily made up of younger, U.S.-based players.
"It is amazing that Landon has so many caps at this stage of his career," Bradley said. "He means a lot to our group and I very much hope that he has many more internationals to come.
"He is a high-quality player who continues to be important for us. It promises to be a big night for him and we hope to mark it with a victory."