Hypothetically, Why Didn’t Dempsey & Donovan Become The Stockton & Malone Of The USMNT?

John Nyen spurs a more interesting relationship between Donovan and Dempsey than “foil.”

….or did they?

10 goals in the Barclay’s Premier League and 16 in all competitions: Clint Dempsey

5 assists in 7 games in the Barclay’s Premier League: Landon Donovan

No animosity (photo credit: MLSSoccer.com)

Somehow the scribes write about a rivalry, contrived though it may be.

With Donovan in the BPL temporarily, the recent clash between Fulham and Everton was the first time Donovan had played against Dempsey since the Galaxy played the New England Revolution in 2006 (at which time the Revolution dominated the Galaxy…my how times have changed).

This time, Donovan’s team came out ahead with the winning goal assisted by Landon. However, the rivalry (as a matter of player against player) is really a non-starter for most fans of the US team. There is no animosity between the players any more than there seems to be a passionate friendship. They are simply colleagues, and national team players who are both typically the lightening rod for whatever team they don the uniform.

However, in light of the recent success of the two, a friend asked me…

Dempsey, a high-flier for the US....

“Can your next Shin Guardian article be about why Landon to Clint never became the Stockton to Malone of our national team based on the way Deuce is scoring & Donovan is dropping dimes right now?”

This raised the question…

“Are Donovan and Dempsey good together?”

If the answer to that question is yes, than how good? What metric can be employed to analyze the data? I should note that this article is about perception, and the question of what fans see for the national team versus what the players do for their clubs.

Clint Dempsey has scored 24 goals for the USMNT squad since scoring his first goal in a 2- 1 loss to England in May of 2005.

Meanwhile, Landon has been steadily chugging along since his October 25th, 2000 debut against Mexico where he had his first assist and first goal. (Worth noting in the goal totals and games played between the two that Landon made his USA senior team debut five years before Dempsey even though Landon is just one year older).

The 24 goals scored by Dempsey have come in 23 games (*this is not total number of games Clint has played, just the total number he has scored in) with only one multiple goal game ( the 8 – 0 demolition of Barbados where he scored two). Of those 23 games played that Dempsey scored, Clint and Landon played together 20 times, although in the infamous Gold Cup game against Cuba in 2005, Donovan didn’t come into the game until late in the second half after Dempsey had already scored to tie the game at 1-1.

So out of these 20 games played together, in which Clint Dempsey scored, Landon had a hand in nine of his goals, or roughly 45% of the time Dempsey scores… Donovan is involved.

Now the qualification for assists here differs from your natural “Donovan passed to Dempsey and he scored” routine that FIFA would use to assign them. I’ve re-watched every single one of the nine incidents that I think Donovan assisted directly and indirectly to view exactly what happened.

Here is the review:

Example #1: Your typical “one player passes, the other player scores” assist. The example here is the June 22nd, 2011 Game against Panama in which Donovan slid the pass into Dempsey who then scored. Direct assist.

Example #2: The “one player removed” assist or involvement. The example here is the June 7th, 2011 game against Canada in which Donovan played Altidore into the right side of the box in a perfect position. Altidore then passed the ball to Dempsey. This involvement is more akin to a hockey assist. Without Donovan slotting in Altidore, there would be no goal from that play.

Example #3: The involvement in the play assist. The example here is the England World Cup game in which the ball is played in the air to Donovan. He backs into the marking defensive player and jumps for the ball forcing the defensive header that drops to Dempsey who then does all the work and scores. This is a play involvement-type assist. It would never be noted in the game as an assist, however a header there does not fall to Dempsey for the speculative shot. Without Donovan pressing his man, there is no goal in that specific situation from Dempsey.

Too many observations....

The first problem with comparing Stockton and Malone to Dempsey and Donovan, is that Dempsey and Donovan have only played 20 games together.

Stockton and Malone played 1,412 regular season games together. Also, the metrics between Basketball and Soccer are inevitably skewed as scoring in Soccer is at a premium whereas in Basketball it is frequent and expected. Having said all that, the estimate for the connection between Stockton and Malone is expected to be somewhere around 50% to 60% of Stockton’s assists, which compares favorably but not scientifically to the Donovan to Dempsey connection.

In Stockton’s best assist game ever (28 assists in the January 15, 1991 game against the San Antonio Spurs) the stats analysis of the day didn’t keep track of how many assists went to Malone, only that Stockton was responsible for 81.8% of the points scored by the team (a Xavi-esque, completed passes number).

So reasonably the stats are going to not allow us to look directly at them for a comparison. Perhaps a better comparison would be some tandems in modern soccer that are directly comparable.

The formula I went about for selecting the examples used are:

#1 Must not have played together on a club team (in this fashion we don’t have familiarity)

#2 One player must be more a facilitator (that scores) the other a scorer (who some times facilitates)

Some famous and more contemporary suggestions given to me from the front office of The Shin Guardian were:


Thierry Henry – Zinedine Zidane

Frank Lampard – Steven Gerrard

Xavi – Iniesta


Diego Forlan – Luis Suarez

The two reviewed were Forlan-Suarez and Lampard-Gerrard.

Henry and Ronaldo were too cast in the mold of “out and out strikers” to be contrasted against Dempsey.

Xavi and Iniesta play with each other on Barcelona and this breeds familiarity, really this is a problem with any examples of the Spanish national team. Also, Zidane and Henry weren’t necessarily a formidable partnership.

The English version of Magic vs. Bird?

The Lampard-Gerrard one intrigues me especially because the prevailing sense is that they do not play well together. Forlan-Suarez example is perhaps the best example as there is a bit of Suarez in Dempsey and a bit of Forlan in Donovan, even down to their success at clubs. Of course the two largest problems with the Suarez/Dempsey connection is the age difference (Suarez is 5 years younger) and the positional difference (Suarez plays more up top for his country than Dempsey). Also, Uruguay has often played both Forlan and Suarez up top as they did in the Copa America. However, Suarez does tend to spend a vast amount of time working through the midfield in a free role much like Dempsey currently does. Based on Suarez position on the field it makes sense then that we can attempt to compare the last year or two of Dempsey’s career where he played more of an advanced role for the US.

So here are the metrics for comparison: The last 10 goals of the scorer (Suarez, Dempsey, Gerrard) that the facilitator (Forlan, Donovan, Lampard) was on the field with them at the same time.

To start…

Dempsey and Donovan:

10 goals for Dempsey – 7 involving Donovan

Suarez and Forlan:

10 goals for Suarez – 6 involving Forlan

Gerrard and Lampard:

10 goals for Gerrard – 2 involving Lampard, no direct assist.

Actually, the Lampard/Gerrard thing is interesting as Gerrard actually scored 3 goals AFTER Frank Lampard was subbed out of the game.

Also one of the assists I counted for Lampard involved the Gerrard goal in the USA/England world cup where there was a throw in and Lampard managed to get the ball to Rooney (while falling down/getting hit) before Rooney got the ball to Gerrard for the goal. So, I am being a bit generous here for them.

Note: Unless described in the game report as a direct assist, I watched each and every goal (sometimes multiples times and views) to verify whether there was a direct involvement in the play between the two. My rule was that any more than two touches from the goal was considered not involved.

Looking at these statistics are a bit interesting, because it actually shows that among even elite pairings, Donovan and Dempsey actually have a really fantastic playing relationship. Certainly there are caveats, with the largest ones being a small sample size in both goals and pairings. To be certain, if we extrapolated this to other duos I would think other players would be towards the top of the list. However, the data does show the progressing development of the game of both Donovan and Dempsey, that they are directly involved with one another so much.

There is also an argument that player selection may be helping certain pairings.

”]With Suarez and Forlan, most of their goals have been within the last two years and Suarez scores bucket loads of goals from impossible angles. With Donovan and Dempsey the latest I went back (for 10 goals) was the September 10th 2008 World Cup Qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago. With the Lampard and Gerrard partnership, I had to go back all the way to the 2006 pre-World Cup friendly against Hungary.The argument against Gerrard and Lampard also could be the role of the player as Gerrard and Lampard are far more alike in playing style than Donovan and Dempsey. They both also (in the past) played more of a Box to Box midfielder position, which differs from Donovan/Dempsey.

Total goals were of importance to the ideal as Forlan and Suarez are the two top scoring players (recently) for Uruguay. Donovan and Dempsey are the two top scoring players (recently) for the USA. Other than Wayne Rooney and Peter Crouch, Lampard and Gerrard are the third and fourth best Goal Scorers for England.

Certainly I could have picked Wayne Rooney, however while Rooney has had the most goals of the recent call ups, he has been used primarily by Capello as a forward and in looking at the last few years Rooney seemingly doesn’t have a major partnership or comparison player on England. His two goals in the recent Bulgaria/England game were from a Stuart Downing corner and an Ashley Young pass and his goal against Switzerland was the result of clever wing play and exchanges between Glen Johnson and Theo Walcott. An issue of England (not necessarily good or bad) is that they seemingly don’t have a one-two partnership in the midfield.

In going through all these stats one can look at the Donovan and Dempsey partnership as becoming very fruitful, especially in the last two years. As the game of Dempsey has grown to a more free-flowing scoring role and Donovan has morphed into that of a set-up man (from his former goal scoring ways) they have both–in my opinion and review–come together to produce at a high level for the United States.

23 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by jb on 2012/02/07 at 8:13 AM

    I enjoyed the article. The comparisons seem a bit of a stretch, but the overall conclusion is really interesting, that Donovan and Dempsey do play well off each other. Another interesting topic might be the evolution of these two players, even from where they were just two years ago. The Dempsey path makes more sense as he’s moved up closer to goal, because he’s always had a unshakable confidence to shoot and less interest in defending from a midfield position. To me, Donovan is a bit more of a head-scratcher. He’s the all-time leader in both goals and assists for the US, so he can clearly play the role of “Stockton” or “Malone.” It’s clear that he prefers dishing out the assists. This would be fine except that our US team has such a hard time putting the ball in the net. I think that’s the source of many fans’ frustration with Donovan at times. That said, I have nothing but admiration for the way Donovan has played at Everton this year. And no one can knock his defensive commitment.


    • Posted by Martin on 2012/02/07 at 1:26 PM

      “This would be fine except that our US team has such a hard time putting the ball in the net. ”

      I have no stats but if you watched the USMNT all thru the BB and JK years, it’s not so much the lack of goals I’ve noticed as the complete lack of goal chances. Precious few through balls or crosses from the wing or intricate movements resulting in shots and rebounds.

      If Donovan did not focus on creating goals who would?


  2. Two comments here beyond good article John:

    First, Donovan, Dempsey the Gold Cup against Mexico. Can that type of play happen more often and why isn’t it.

    Second, in an offense which will rely on more pressure up the pitch to effectively “seal in opponents” does that place greater value on a Jose Torres than a Landon Donovan? And how will that impact his “impact” to Dempsey?


    • I had an idea about the second and I’ll think about the first.

      With the second perhaps there is room in the “high up the pitch defending” to run a 4-4-1-1/4-5-1 with Dempsey up top and Landon behind him as the link to create. This is effectively what Uruguay ran during the Copa and it worked resoundingly well. Your pressure could come from the middle of the park with Bradley/Whomever see-sawing up to get someone on the ball/disrupt and distributing out/up to Shea/Donovan/whomever.

      just a thought.

      I’m not sure that entirely fits in with what Klinsmann’s vision is, because I tend to think he loves his flank play entirely too much to sacrifice a big man up top with his distributors in the middle of the field. However, it remains an option.


  3. Posted by Mattnyc on 2012/02/07 at 1:15 PM

    Matthew, your comment/question
    “Donovan, Dempsey the Gold Cup against Mexico. Can that type of play happen more often and why isn’t it?”
    is exactly what made me pose this question to John given the season both are having in the BPL.

    Living off and on in UT from 84-2000+ led me to pose it in that format.

    Great job John, I know you loved the research for this.


    • Thanks Matt,

      Just looked back at it again and actually the direct assist from Donovan to Dempsey in Panama was the result of typical Bob Bradley counter-attacking soccer.


      The real dynamo here is the Adu long ball to Donovan that freed him up to send that cross into Dempsey.

      Potentially the issue here is, just like at any time in Bob Bradley’s career, he was looking for Xabi Alonso. A creative midfielder with enough “oomph” to ping passes in behind the defense on a counter attack, while still shutting down attacks and shuttling the ball away from offenses. As good a ball as Adu set up there, I’m not entirely convinced that he would be Xabi Alonso there. Also a moot point since Bob is no longer the coach.

      The real question will be “what is Klinsmann going to do when he actually gets the ‘A’ team on the field for the first time for a real game”

      Will be interesting as always.


  4. […] in 2006 (at which time the Revolution …Can Donovan/Dempsey combine?Soccer365 (press release)Hypothetically, Why Didn't Dempsey & Donovan Become The Stockton & Malone Of …The Shin […]


  5. Posted by GeorgeCross on 2012/02/07 at 7:01 PM

    Is it still an assist if the goal comes from a blatant defensive error?


  6. Posted by dth on 2012/02/07 at 7:13 PM

    Is Dempsey really best in the “Malone” position? I’ve long felt–and I’m just going to abandon basketball completely, because there’s no proper analogy to be drawn–that Dempsey should be a #10. Or, in an alternate universe, Dempsey would’ve been groomed since his teenage years to be a #10.


    • I agree with you to a certain extent, except that there really isn’t a true out and out forward (who scores) for the US at this point. So realistically you can try to do what Bob did (which is get some kind of production, whether holding up or assisting) from his forward position and hope that your midfielders provide goals.


  7. Posted by Antonio H. on 2012/02/07 at 7:27 PM

    No MJ, and Scottie Pippen? Magic and Kareem? I digress…


  8. Posted by Manuel on 2012/02/07 at 8:30 PM

    Nice article, but it’s been obvious for some time now that Dempsey and Donovan are the USMNT’s dynamic duo. However, Donovan is more of a creator because his teams have needed him to be.


  9. Posted by kaya on 2012/02/08 at 12:48 AM

    I don’t think anyone wants to be MJ’s Pippen, it’s kind of pejorative.
    Magic and Kareem >> Stockton and Malone. God I hated the Utah Jazz.


    • Posted by dth on 2012/02/08 at 9:35 AM

      Why wouldn’t you want to become MJ’s Pippen? He’s a consensus top 25 player ever and won six championships? Sure, you’re not The Man, but Pippen had a better career than 99.9999999999999999999% of basketball players ever.


  10. Posted by dikranovich on 2012/02/08 at 9:12 AM

    in fairness, when you talk about two basketball players, this is 40% of one team on the court, so in soccer terms, really we should be talking about four players. doesnt that make sense?

    isnt dempsey just a classic number 9 though? i mean jesus, does he have a goal scorers mentality or what we all know how you feel about goal scorers being overrated.


    • Interesting point about the metrics of team size dikranovich. The problem with attempting to find this information is the amount of times the “4” would play together as well as data points that would validate or invalidate a quartet’s success rating. With national team duties the rotations, even for an entrenched midfield, vary quite a bit more than you would think.


  11. Posted by dth on 2012/02/08 at 12:34 PM

    Hey, GeorgeCross: Capello’s gone! Your thoughts?

    Personally, I’m amazed. This is so out-of-character for England. Don’t they know they have to wait until the actual tournament to crash and burn?


  12. Posted by dth on 2012/02/08 at 7:58 PM

  13. Posted by KickinNames... on 2012/02/08 at 8:08 PM

    interesting article and I enjoyed the premise. Thanks for taking the time.

    One request or question, when can we please retire that most overuse metaphor for an assist….’dropping dimes’


  14. Posted by Kay20 on 2012/02/09 at 1:16 AM

    Interesting thoughts!!!

    One question on the assist 45% stat – would be curious to compare the LD/Deuce combo to LD/other person combos on the national team. Aka, does that 45% represent more or less than a Landon combination with another player? And what does that tell us.

    The reason I’m asking this is because Landon has been our assist provider for so long, I suspect that if you took any semi-permanent forward for the national team he’d provide 45% of the assists. Let’s take Jozy as an example – from what I remember of his goals, I think Landon has set up a good chunk of them.

    So does the LD/Deuce combo really perform better? Or is Landon just pretty much 50% of the time assisting anyone who scores for the US? I think it might be the latter.


  15. Posted by jim on 2012/02/11 at 5:48 AM

    Off-topic: when will the next iteration of “Klinnsman’s Depth Chart” appear?


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