Landycakes No More

Most of us who follow sports have a sort of mental photo album, kind of like a file folder of images which for one reason or another ended up indelibly etched in our minds.

Sometimes the image is just what you'd expect: a snapshot of joy from a signal victory of some kind, or a favorite player on a favorite team scoring a crucial goal.

But for me at least, some of the most poignant ones are from the aftermath of some really painful loss or other. Maybe it's just because I've given over decades of my life to supporting bad teams, I really don't know.

However that may be, one such image burned into my memory is from immediately after the bitter loss to Germany in the 2002 World Cup.

Goal line handling aside, the US simply outplayed the Germans that day, and the Germans - players, writers and fans alike - were the first ones to say so. The US was the better team that day, making the fact that it was Germany going through to the semifinals instead of us all the more difficult to bear.

The image I have - maybe there's a photo someplace, but I've never seen it - is of an obviously distraught, totally drained and on-the-verge-of-sobbing Landon Donovan walking off the field with Cobi Jones.

Jones has an arm around Donovan, but it's a fierce arm, almost an embrace, as if Cobi is afraid that Donovan will crumple to the ground without it.

Jone's face is mere inches from Landon's, and he's speaking rapidly, urgently, trying to get some eye contact, delivering a message. It didn't take much imagination to know what he was saying.

This had been Jone's last hurrah. Indeed, he was probably the most controversial of Arena's picks. (The other contender was Tony Meola, which was vintage Arena; if it came down to our third keeper then the sky had fallen in and more than anything else Arena wanted a guy whose name he could call in the middle of a disaster who wouldn't immediately crap his pants.)

Jones was past it, his best days were behind him and what was needed was the flavor of the month, whatever Johnny Rocketleg fans were enamored with at the moment. A lot of fans, myself included, demanded to know what Jones could possibly contribute.

In the game prior to the Germany match, the brutal, take-no-prisoners war with Mexico, we had gotten our answer. Clinging to a 2-0 lead, with seconds seeming like hours as time ran down, in came Jones with one mission: kill the clock.

And seldom, if ever, have I seen one player receive a fiercer, more shameless and savage physical beating on a soccer field than Jones got in the last ten minutes of that game. Who can forget him taking the ball deep into the Mexico corners with two green-clad players, anger and frustration finally boiling over, beating the guy like they'd caught him stealing their car? At one point, Jones was literally lying face down in the dirt while two Mexican players stomped on him like a vat full of last year's grapes.

Jones was there because Jones had been there. He knew his job, nobody was going to rattle him and to beat him you were going to have to kill him. It was that simple.

Speed didn't matter. Skill didn't matter. Balls mattered. And Jones showed up.

So there they were, four days later, Donovan and Jones walking off the Munsu Stadium field together oblivious to the celebration exploding around them. It was Jone's third and last World Cup team and he knew it. It was Donovan's first World Cup team and everyone knew there would be many more.

I'm not going to pretend that I know what Cobi said that day. That will forever be between them. But for at least one fan it was as literal a passing of the torch as you'll ever see.

For the US Men's National Team, there hasn't been much of a debate the last few years over who the best player is. Everybody knows.

But being the best player isn't the same as that being your team.

And in truth, too many times Donovan just didn't seem to show up. Or he'd drift in and out of games, disappearing for long stretches as surely as if he'd taken a seat in the first row.

And of course he still carries what now amounts to not much less than a stigma: sure he can dominate an MLS game, but he's just not good enough to make it someplace that really matters. He hasn't got the game. He hasn't got the guts. He'd rather be at home with his woman. You've heard it all a million times.

Along with that, of course, is the nickname. There's no mistaking exactly what it means: he's soft, a nancy boy, a poof, a show pony. If it's not exactly calling him a homosexual, it's surely the next best thing.

And even as normally civil a commenter as Ollie Irish has referred to him using the name. It's common parlance now, part of the soccer insider's argot.

Now I know that a lot of people will be using that term when referring to Donovan even if he scores 10 World Cup goals while leading us to glory. Like the man says, some names just kind of stick to a guy.

Fair enough, I suppose. I'm certain he can take it.

But it says here that I haven't seen Landycakes in South Africa over the last ten days. What I've seen is a guy out there busting his ass, trying to drag a bunch of plowhorses over the finish line. A guy who never quit for a second, never took a break, never stopped trying.

Maybe it's a one-off, as they say: maybe we'll never see it again.

And maybe, just maybe, this has finally become what it was supposed to become; what Cobi thought it could be, and what we've all known it had to be in order to succeed:

Maybe it's finally become Landon's team.