This Friday, David Moyes’ Everton will take on Martin Jol’s Fulham in England’s 141-year-old FA Cup. The tournament’s glorious historical significance will play stage to a battle that many Americans will be keen to observe: that of Everton’s on-loan forward, Landon Donovan, versus Fulham’s leading scorer, Clint Dempsey– both Americans.
Landon Donovan’s career is a long and successful one. Those that have been following America’s domestic club scene remember well the bleach-haired 18-year-old that led San Jose to their first of two MLS Cups with him in the side in the early part of last decade. Followers of the US National Team will remember the Landon Donovan that helped lead his team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, where the team narrowly lost to eventual second-place Germany despite one of the best international performances ever put in by an outfield player in American football history.
Over the subsequent years Donovan, of course, went on to pass Eric Wynalda as the the country’s all-time leading scorer, and to fill his trophy cabinet with three Gold Cup winner’s medals with his country, four MLS Cup winner’s medals, two MLS Supporters’ shields medals, and a US Open Cup championship medal for good measure. It’s plain to see then that Landon Donovan is the best player that America has ever produced.
Or is he?
Football historians of a more international disposition will recall that Landon Donovan, despite all of his physical gifts, washed out of the famous Bayer Leverkusen system before making his aforementioned move to San Jose in MLS. People say– true or not– that he lacked the mental fortitude to survive the rigors of European football. Historians will also recall that time and time again, Donovan rejected moves to Europe– most notably in 2005– instead deciding to stay in the familiar comfort zone of the United States. Even on Friday, when he does feature for Everton– a European side– he will only be making the appearance as an on-loan player, not a regular and important fixture for the team.
In obvious frustration with Donovan’s apparent unwillingness to truly test himself, football pundits in the country, such as “Fox Football Fone-In’s” Steven Cohen, took to calling Donovan “Landycakes.”
Eric Wynalda summed up the stance of many American football fans right around 2005: “Some of the people who like to call him Landycakes and tease his manhood believe… he would try to be the best he can, in Europe, and not take the easy way out in MLS. We have tended to put him on a pedestal and say, ‘Look how great of a player we have in this country,’ and then Landon shies away from proving it.”
Wynalda brings up a great point, especially if one chooses to overlook the fact that Wynalda was the man whose international scoring record was beaten by Donovan.
Italians have a word for what Wynalda describes as “manhood”: grinta.
Players with grinta exhibit a “never say die” attitude. To the day that Donovan retires, and beyond, his legacy will almost certainly be tarnished by the perception that– deservedly or not– he lacked the grinta to succeed in the world’s grandest stages of club football, despite the elegance and effectiveness of his MLS and international play.
In a sharp contrast to Donovan, there is historically no American footballer with more grinta than Fulham’s Clint Dempsey.
Unlike Donovan, Dempsey was not reared in a major European side’s youth academy. He was not winning MLS Cups and scoring international goals when he was 18. And he didn’t make an appearance for a senior club side until he was 21 and playing for MLS’ New England Revolution.
While he was a key component of the successful Steve Nicol New England sides of 2004 through 2006, and went on to score 25 goals in 71 appearances, it was his grinta that got him noticed by Chris Coleman, then manager of Fulham. Said Coleman of Dempsey: “I have been watching Clint for a while now and he is an aggressive, offensively minded player… he also has a great attitude towards the game…”.
The same Steven Cohen that called Landon Donovan “Landycakes” had almost the exact opposite thing to say about Dempsey upon his move to Fulham, predicting that he would be a huge hit due to his “cocky attitude” and feisty nature– an American way of describing the concept of grinta.
Cohen was right to such an extent that, five years after Dempsey’s move, the caliber of his play has caused some American fans to question: is Clint Dempsey a better player than Landon Donovan?
Unlike Donovan, Dempsey has not just made occasional, on-loan appearances in European club football. No, Dempsey has gone on to become a positively integral component of Fulham’s contemporary sides, making an extremely impressive 169 appearances, while accumulating a wonderful tally of 43 goals, despite being frequently deployed in wide or more withdrawn attacking positions.
Continuing his success, Dempsey scored a sensational goal against Juventus, helping Fulham to the finals of the 2009-2010 Europa League, only losing out eventually to star-studded Atletico Madrid.
And in 2012, Dempsey achieved what no other American player has perhaps ever dreamed of, much less accomplished: scoring two hat tricks in European football in a span of two weeks. The first came against third-division Charlton in the FA Cup, while the second came in league play against Newcastle. In doing so, Dempsey became the first American to score a hat trick in the Premier League. He has also become the career leading scorer in the Premier League (37) for an American and is Fulham’s leading scorer amongst active players as well as the leader in games played.
Despite Dempsey’s obvious skill and tactical prowess, it was once again grinta that defined his performance, as best described by his manager Martin Jol after the Newcastle match:
“Clint Dempsey is our top scorer… he is American, so he is a great sportsman and wants to win every training session. He has the eye of the tiger.”
On Friday, Americans will be treated to a wonderful occasion: watching finesse versus grinta, glamour versus sheer will. Friday will be another chapter in the book bent on answering the question of which player is truly better.
Editors note: Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl announced on Tuesday via Twitter that Everton had given FOX permission to use its live feed of Friday’s FA Cup game against Fulham. That game will take place on Friday at 2:00 p.m. CT.
Fox has decided to air the game on FOX Soccer in HD and will also have JP Dellacamera and Eric Wynalda in studio for commentary.
The FA Cup game will be the first meeting between the two players since 2006. Not to be forgotten in the matchup will be America’s #1 goalkeeper, Tim Howard, who will mind the nets for Everton.