He led his nation through qualifying, assisting in or scoring almost every big goal along the way. He impressed the world during the Confederations Cup, scoring a classic counter-attack goal against the kings of the counter-attack, Brazil. He turned the opinion of more than a few American soccer fans with his play and his declaration that he was finally ready to tackle Europe.
It's been a banner year in the career of Landon Donovan.
Only right then, considering his significant contributions to the National Team this year, the he be named the Honda Player of the Year for the third consecutive time and the sixth overall. The awards committee, while they were at it, threw in a "Player of the Decade" award for good measure.
Still, 2009 is really just a stepping stone for Donovan. The next phase of his career is crucial; if he doesn't build on his "breakout" year, then what did he really gain?
If 2009 was the year Donovan finally began to play up to his considerable potential, then 2010 will the perfect stage for a virtuoso performance. Between a move to Europe (possible, if not likely, in January) and the World Cup in in the summer, America's Best Player™ has the chances to place himself in a section of the "world class" discussion that has rarely, beyond goalkeepers, included an American.
Whether Donovan's abilities are diminished by fans and observers because he's an American or not (and I'm of the opinion that they are), the fact remains that he plays in a second-or-third rate league; add to that the problem that international exploits in CONCACAF are generally viewed with skepticism and that the Confederations Cup was dismissed by many as a glorified exhibition, and Donovan still faces an uphill climb to convince the football world that he's a bona fide star.
His first task is getting to Europe, and preferably to a club in one of the top leagues (which, for his purposes, includes England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and France) and one where he'll play. This year's winter loan to Bayern Munich, the first sign that Donovan was intent on making his name outside of MLS, was nice, but it brought with it the intrinsic problem of breaking into a loaded team with established stars. If Donovan is going to break through the glass ceiling of his own making, he'll need to end up somewhere when playing time is not only likely, but will come in abundance.
Can you say "mid-table"?
Playing for a poor team, elite league or not, won't do Donovan any good. It's for this reason the rumored move to Livorno worried me; fighting to stay up saps the energy and drive of even the best players, and entering mid-season as an unknown handicaps him immediately when managers are generally protecting their jobs. Jozy Alitdore's plight at Hull, where Phil Brown has continued to play known, more experienced players despite poor results, should serve as a cautionary tale. "Big" clubs are either unlikely to be interested or will have too many options for a Donovan move to one to make sense. That leaves mid-table clubs, who might be open to adding someone of Donovan's quality because their league position is stable, yet don't have so many elite players that breaking into the squad should be difficult.
Europe in January sets the stage for South Africa in June.
With the planet's eyes on the World Cup, South Africa is where Donovan will either finally put to rest questions about his mental makeup and abilities, or where the naysayers will find their ultimate argument. Germany was a disaster not only for the Unites States, but for Donovan as well; making amends by pushing US along next summer would go a long way towards washing clean the stink of 2006.
For many, 2009 brought with it the death of name "Landycakes". It will be how the next step goes for Donovan that will determine if 2010 brings about its resurrection or final burial.