Landon Donovan: “They’ve been able to actually impose their style on teams and play in a way that is identifiable. I think that’s that can be quite rare for a national team. So, I give them a ton of credit.” (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

Landon Donovan is bullish on the U.S. men’s national team.

The U.S. soccer legend feels the Americans will qualify for this year’s World Cup for several reasons behind an exciting, new generation of players who have embraced head coach Gregg Berhalter’s system.

“I’ve been really impressed with how quickly Gregg has been able to get this group of young players to understand how he wants them to play,” Donovan said in a recent interview. “There were certainly some bumps along the way, but now you can tell the team very clearly understands how they want to play. And that’s really, really hard when you don’t have players with you every day. Gregg has done a fantastic job of getting those players to understand how he wants to play and then a credit to the players for quickly picking it up and implementing it.”

The USMNT will begin its winter qualifying window against El Salvador in Columbus on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. The squad heads up north to play Canada in Hamilton, Ontario on Sunday, Jan. 30 at 3 p.m. ET. The USA will finish with a Feb. 2 match-up against Honduras in St. Paul, Minn.

The Americans (4-1-3, 15 points) are in second place in the Concacaf Octagonal, a point behind Canada (4-0-4, 16) and a point ahead of Mexico and Panama (both are 4-2-2, 14).

Donovan, the manager of the San Diego Loyal in the USL Championship, knows a thing or two about WCQ and the World Cup.

No player has been involved in more qualifying goals than Donovan – 34 in 40 appearances. He is third on the all-time list (13 goals) and is the all-time leader in assists (21). He also is U.S.’s all-time leader in World Cup matches (12) and goals (five). He also competed in three World Cups (2002, 2006 ad 2010), scoring a goal for the ages in the final group stage game against Algeria in the latter tournament that propelled the USA into the knockout round in South Africa.

He also has been through the gauntlet in Mexico, Central America, particularly Costa Rica, and the Caribbean.

So, the 39-year-old Donovan can understand the variables and struggles on teams trying to reach soccer’s promised land.

“Generally speaking, in qualifying there are games that …. you are just surviving,” he said. “They’ve been able to actually impose their style on teams and play in a way that is identifiable. I think that’s that can be quite rare for a national team. So, I give them a ton of credit.”

Of course, the U.S. needs to qualify to ensure all this hard work and planning pays off. The top three Concacaf finishers will book place in Qatar. The fourth-place side will compete against the Oceania winner in special playoff in June.

“It will be challenging, for sure, because the group was kind of separated into top group before and a bottom group of four, which make which makes it a little tricky to get one of those automatic spots. These three games will provide a ton of clarity one way or the other for all the teams competing. We’ll see real separation after these three games.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams will be forced to play three games during a week four times. The January/February window was the third block of matches. March will house the final three games.

When he played, Donovan and his teammates had to play a maximum of two games during FIFA international dates.

The 2022 version is a different animal, and it has given teams with greater depth an advantage, particularly in the third match.

“It is a massive factor,” Donovan said. “You can make the argument that it will be the determining factor on who qualifies and who doesn’t because playing two games, back-to-back of this intensity with travel is exhausting. I mean exhausting, very challenging to do. The fact that now you’re throwing a third game in with travel in a very short period of time gives me so much respect for the coaching staffs and the players to be able to do that. It is really impressive.

“Having a deeper squad helps and I believe that you’ve seen over the course of qualifying that the teams who have the depth, the resources available to get every little advantage, are the teams that are going to succeed.”

Donovan used the USA’s 4-1 win at Honduras in San Pedro Sula on Sept. 8 as a prime example, the final match of the September window as a prime example. Los Catrachos enjoyed a one-goal halftime lead before the USMNT struck for four second-half goals and won going away.

“You could just tell in the second half the Honduran team, even at home were just dead,” he said. “They had played so many minutes with travel at such a high intensity. They just couldn’t they couldn’t keep up with the U.S. squad in the second half of that game. So, I think in the end that will likely be the determining factor. These third games this week will be really interesting to watch.”

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