The Designated Player: Alan Gordon Really Ties the Room Together

Sometimes there’s a man — I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? — but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there — and that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles San Jose.

Last week, I complained in this column, correctly, and without rambling, about just why I hated international weeks. Looking back though, I have to acknowledge that even in the midst of that dire week (which was further compounded by being a derby week for my team in England — meaning I was miserable in two time zones — yay for global soccer) there was a moment of genuine, heartwarming pleasure that occurred when viewing a game. It happened in the 73rd minute of the USA’s otherwise terrible game against Antigua and Barbuda, when 30-year old San Jose Earthquakes striker Alan Gordon was subbed into the match and loped straight up the field.

It was the loping that did it. Not his injury-time assist for Eddie Johnson’s winner, but the way he ran onto the field. Gordon is 6-foot-3 and his reputation as a target man may owe something to a celebrated lack of mobility that has earned him the ironic nickname “Flash.” You could have forgiven such a player if, feeling self-conscious on the biggest stage of his career, albeit an unglamorous, waterlogged version of a big stage, he had sprinted onto the field in one of those conspicuous displays of enthusiasm you sometimes see players perform for the benefit of the desperate coaches who’ve sent them on to change things (as if coaches were easily fooled boxing judges awarding rounds on showy flurries in the last 10 seconds). Gordon, though, looked totally secure in who and what he was (“Flash” doesn’t really “do” sprinting), as he listened to his coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, took the the simple instruction to go up front and make a goal happen, and set off in the direction of that goal — loping. He’d get there when he got there — and for what it’s worth, he got there. But watching this player, who’s been written off and discounted numerous times, only to doggedly come back for more, make his way onto the field with unaffected but unmistakeable purpose, I found it strangely moving.

Doubtless Gordon himself would be unimpressed by such a response. In 2007, during his time at the L.A. Galaxy, the player, then earning close to league minimum and coaching a girl’s soccer team to make ends meet, moved out of the dorm-like accommodation he shared with two other similarly cash-strapped Galaxy players and into teammate Chris Albright’s recently vacated apartment. He still needed a roommate to share the bills though, and as it happened he never quite clicked with Craigslist’s best option — a reclusive pharmacologist. In the words of a bemused Gordon: “His girlfriend broke up with him, and he told me he needed to go to the museum. He needed some art stimulation or something. What am I going to say to that?” (Mental note to self: When you meet Alan Gordon, don’t tell him you found him “strangely moving.”)

We know a fair amount about the Alan Gordon of that period, as he turned up repeatedly in Grant Wahl’s infamous 2009 book The Beckham Experiment — often as a cipher for everything the superstar English midfielder was not, and sometimes cast as the holy fool who dared speak the truth around the mythmaking industry that surrounded number 23.

In the book, there is a telling exchange when the two first met — as Beckham was being introduced to and shaking hands with his new teammates:

“‘Hey, I’m Alan,’ Gordon said. But when Beckham tried to move on to the next player, Gordon kept holding his hand. ‘And you are?’”

As Wahl suggests, it was a typical Alan Gordon move, meant as an icebreaker but also pointedly non-starstruck, despite the fact that at the time Gordon was earning $30,870 per year — some $6,420,230 less than the man whose hand he was shaking. Throughout the book, Gordon is continually juxtaposed with the presence, and implicitly, the wealth of Beckham — sometimes giving the impression of a dime being placed in the foreground of a photograph to give a sense of scale. When Beckham trots on for his debut cameo in a hyped TV special versus Chelsea, it is Gordon he replaces (“If I’d known how big a moment it was … I’d have fixed my hair”); when the L.A. team take their first chartered flight of the new era, it is Gordon who looks around at the plush interior of the plane and remarks, without irony, that “This is nicer than my apartment.”

In that first season playing with Beckham, when Gordon was enduring fan taunts that he should be replaced with Abby Wambach, Wahl described him thus:

“An admittedly slow 6’3″, 192-pound target man with an up-and-down scoring touch and a penchant for injuries, the twenty-five-year-old Gordon was the typical mid-level MLS player, circa 2007.”

But even at that point, the author clearly also felt a deep affection for a player and man who’d proved himself as a survivor, in circumstances utterly alien to the nominal subject of his book. And though Gordon was nicknamed “Snowshoes” by the L.A. Galaxy fans, from that first Beckham moment through to the striker now making an unlikely breakthrough onto the U.S. national team, his studiedly unpretentious persistence at his chosen career and insistence on playing to his strengths has been a parallel tale of everyman survival, and even thriving, that’s perhaps the archetypal MLS success story. When I spoke to Wahl this week to get his updated impression on Gordon, he could not have been more effusive:

“I’ve got to be honest with you — Alan Gordon is my favorite player in the history of MLS. I know as a journalist you’re not supposed to play favorites, but if I’m allowed an exception that’s the one. He’s just so symbolic of the type of player they built MLS on. He may not have a lot of attention focused on him, and four or five years ago I would never have envisaged him in this position, but through doing the hard work to keep himself free from injury and sheer persistence, he’s become somebody who can be a pretty reliable finisher in the box. When I spoke to him last, last month, he was averaging a goal every 90 minutes on the field — I don’t know if he’s still doing that, but it’s pretty impressive that he’s making his breakthrough into the national team at the age of 30 and in the role that he has.”

Gordon’s remarkable goal average this year (a league-leading 0.9 goals per 90 minutes played) has indeed dipped, but only marginally, in the last month, from what has been an extraordinary standard of consistency, in an equally extraordinary season for the Supporters’ Shield holders and MLS Cup top seeds, the San Jose Earthquakes. Playing alongside the refined goal scorer’s instincts of Chris Wondolowski and the rather less refined, but brutally effective, physical talents of Steven Lenhart, Gordon’s style has hovered between the two — to extend the Big Lebowski analogy, he ties the room together. In doing so, he has been part of a hugely effective goal-scoring trio, led by the exploits of Wondolowski, but ably propped up by the no-nonsense partnership with Lenhart that Gordon himself christened the “Bash Brothers” (nicknames feature heavily in Gordon’s story — as you may have gathered he’s not big on excessive formality). Between them the three strikers have scored 49 of San Jose’s 71 goals, of which Gordon has a more than respectable 13.

It’s been a remarkable season, all the more so because nobody expected anything like it. San Jose had come off a difficult and disappointing 2011 — finishing seventh in the Western Conference (as they had done in all but one of the seasons since returning to MLS in 2008) and missing the playoffs. Chris Wondolowski’s goals had dried up during a long, winless summer and the team’s other star, Bobby Convey, had been a vocally unsettled presence (he left for Sporting K.C. in the offseason). Lenhart had endured a rough personal year, and the Spurs loanee Simon Dawkins was yet to demonstrate the value for money that has made him look like this season’s Mauro Rosales.

And then there was Gordon. The striker had had a miserable 2011. He’d been traded by the Galaxy to rivals Chivas halfway through the previous season, only to be selected in the expansion draft by Vancouver in the offseason, then immediately traded back to Chivas. Chivas promptly traded him to Toronto in March 2011, where he was there long enough to score a satisfying brace against the Galaxy on his first trip back, before the Canadian side traded for Danny Koevermans and he once again became a makeweight in a deal — departing to San Jose in July as part of a three-player package taking Ryan Johnson the other way. Such are the routine indignities of being a non-superstar MLS player. The silver lining in the latest trade was that a coach who knew him had made the move for him. Frank Yallop had been Gordon’s coach back in Los Angeles, before the arrival of Beckham and the attendant backroom politics turned both their worlds upside down. And as Yallop told me this week, it wasn’t the first time he’d moved for the player:

“I actually spoke to him before the expansion draft in 2008 — I wanted to bring him in then. I like Alan. We had a conversation, but it was a bit early in his private life for him to move up, so I granted his wishes and didn’t pick him. Then four or five years later the timing couldn’t have been better and I knew what I was getting.”

So what was he getting? Well, in Yallop’s words: “His all-action play; his enthusiasm; his willingness to work hard for his team; his bravery.” And his injuries. Barely had Gordon started with his new team than he was diagnosed with a torn rectus abdominis, along with tears in his left and right hip adductors — injuries that required immediate, potentially career-ending surgery. And livelihood-ending — Gordon may be on $120,000 per year now, but he’s a 30-year-old man who made a relative pittance for much of his 20s. Earlier this week I listened to an interview with New York goalkeeper Luis Robles in which he talked of his relief at being picked up this summer, having just returned from Germany with a wife who was seven months’ pregnant and without health insurance. Gordon could sympathize. Never mind the physical wear and tear of the game — the emotional wear and tear of careers played without the luxury of meaningful contingency funds is real and scary for many MLS players and their families. The MLS Everyman faced an uncertain future last winter.

But Gordon might say he faced an uncertain future every winter. And against the odds, and perhaps feeling he had no other choice, the striker persisted and fought his way back to not only play again, but have a career year. He was at the heart of a San Jose offense that started strongly and then just kept the momentum going, picking up the “Goonies never say die” tagline along the way, as they accrued multiple late wins and overtime goals in their spirited march to the top of the standings.

In Yallop, Gordon has a coach who appreciates his very particular qualities:

“It’s never tricky or complicated the way he plays — he’s direct and does what’s asked of him. But also, he doesn’t get a lot of credit for his feet and he’s got a clean good touch with both feet. His record of converting chances is amongst the best in the league. Now he’s over his injuries — OK he still has one or two knocks here and there — but he’s doing great. In the locker room, he’s one of those guys who’s not afraid to speak up and ask questions and who’ll sort the team out. He’s a vocal leader, but the key to that is that if he’s asking a teammate to work hard, he’ll work harder himself. Nothing worse than a player who’s all talk but doesn’t do it on the field, but he’s not like that.”

He’s not. And now his team are the team to beat in MLS Cup. A possible reunion with Beckham awaits in the Western Conference semifinal, assuming the deposed Shield holders, the Galaxy, can get past Vancouver in the wild-card game to face the no. 1 seed. Should they meet again, David Beckham will know who he’s shaking hands with.

The Dude abides.

Graham Parker (@kidweil) leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for Howler.

Filed Under: David Beckham, Graham Parker, MLS