The biggest question facing the LA Galaxy heading into the 2015 season is how the loss of Landon Donovan is going to effect the team. Everyone knows that his play-making and goal-scoring will be missed. In addition, everyone likes to talk about "the space" he opened up for other players on the pitch. With key opposition players busy keeping an eye on Donovan, other attacking players like Robbie Keane (19g 14a), Gyasi Zardes (16g 2a), Stefan Ishizaki (5g 7a), and even Baggio Husidic (5g 4a) had more opportunities (not to mention Marcelo Sarvas - 3g 11A, who has also now moved on). However, this argument has always been hard to demonstrate concretely.
Interestingly, Donovan's last professional match actually provides a great example of his impact beyond just goals and assists. The LA Galaxy opponent in this match was the New England Revolution, who had seen a tremendous late season run largely attributed to the signing of star box-to-box midfielder, Jermaine Jones. Jones is a big, fast, physical player who can both shut down opponents attackers and create scoring opportunities with his own marauding runs through the midfield.
In the MLS Cup, Jones played fairly conservatively, never getting too far from Donovan. Here are three graphics from the Opta Chalkboard for the match:
These are pairs of diagrams showing the activity of Donovan (the 10 with a white background) and Jones (the 13 with a dark background) for the first half of the match, the second half of the match, and extra time (respectively). The images are a little confusing because the attacking end of the field is up in all of them. As a result, if both players are in the same part of the field at the same time, they show up mirrored around the diagonal axis. For example, in the first half of the match (the first graphic), Donovan was playing left midfield for the Galaxy. As a result, you see that Jones was shadowing him on the right side for the Revolution.
In the second half (the middle graphic), Donovan shifted to playing as a forward, primarily on the right side of the front line. As a result, Jones shifted his positioning into a deeper position on the left side of the Revolution formation. Finally, in extra time, Donovan shifted back into the midfield, but this time on the right wing for LA. Not surprisingly, the graphic (on the bottom) shows that Jones has now shaded to the left side of the New England formation, but further up the field.
This is pretty compelling evidence that Jones, widely considered the best player for New England, was tasked with shadowing Donovan during this match and preventing him from making any of his patented runs out of the midfield. You could say that he was fairly effective as well. Donovan got very little space on the ball in this match, and was pretty quiet overall. However, when you look at the goals LA scored, in both cases Jones was more concerned with Donovan than the players who actually ended up doing the damage.
On the first goal. Jones is right on Donovan's back at the top of the penalty box when Ishizaki sends a cross to Zardes that the young striker eventually buries. On the second, Jones is sitting back in central midfield when Sarvas lofts a beautiful pass to Robbie Keane to send him in alone on the 'keeper for the winning goal.
In addition, in the second half of the match, the LA midfield and defense had fewer concerns with Jermaine Jones because he was sitting deep trying to prevent Donovan from doing anything dangerous. As a result, New England had to rely solely on Lee Nguyen to provide their creative spark while Jones collected the ball on the back line and sent looping passes over the midfield.
This brings us back to the opening question. How will LA cope with not having Donovan to distract opposition players from both their broader defensive and attacking responsibilities?
While LA will be bringing in Steven Gerrard later this summer, it's unclear what personnel Bruce Arena will deploy early in the season. He admitted in a recent interview with Steven Goff, that his roster is far from set at this point: "...I don’t know the roster sizes. I don’t know the salary cap. I don’t know anything. It’s a guessing game until the collective bargaining agreement talks are resolved." The most likely scenario is that Robbie Keane becomes the man to garner all the attention. Unfortunately, as a forward (even one like Keane, who likes to drop back into the midfield for the ball) he's less likely to disrupt the opposition's midfield the way Donovan did.
One option might be to move Robbie Rogers from the back line back into the midfield. However, Rogers' success as a left back coupled with his questionable composure in the final third may not make this an ideal option. The best bet right now is for a young player, such as Jose Villareal, Bradford Jamieson, or first round draft pick Ignacio "Nacho" Maganto to step into the midfield and try to create a little havoc, and tide the team over until Gerrard's arrival. During the second half of the season, hopefully the former England captain will be able to draw a lot of defensive attention in the midfield and open things up more for Keane and Zardes. Until he arrives, though, it's likely that Galaxy players and fans are both going to keenly feel Donovan's absence.