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Landon Donovan steps into shadows for US Soccer

May 23, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT

There is an image of Landon Donovan that comes to mind. He was talking a bit about the dark times. You might know that the soccer career of Landon Donovan has been a particularly stark blend of shadow and light, brilliantly bright moments like his earth-shattering goal against Algeria in the World Cup four years ago and gray days when he was not even sure he wanted to keep playing.

The image comes from one of one of those colorless and bleak days when Donovan could not make sense of why he was even playing soccer. He has always been the most introspective of athletes, more artist than jock, and at various times in his life has wondered if this was what he was meant to do. He only started playing soccer because he was such a hyper child that his mother thought running around might tire him out. He scored seven goals in his first game, and the future was laid out.

Well, he was a natural. Donovan was faster than just about anybody — with or without the ball — had a special talent for finding open spaces and he would score more goals on the world stage than any American player ever. He would be a key player — maybe even the key player — in changing the way America viewed the world’s game.

Sometimes, though, he felt this lifelessness on the pitch, as if he had chosen the wrong path in life.

“I used to be on the field,” he said, “and think, ‘Maybe I’ll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud … and that will lift me up.”

Thursday, the U.S. World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Landon Donovan off his 23-man roster for the Rio. It was one of those singular sports moves that made absolutely perfect sense to some fans and absolutely no sense at all to others.  There was no middle ground.

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On the one hand, Donovan is 32 years old, has been off form lately and a year ago he took a soccer sabbatical that clearly left Klinsmann and others wondering about his motivation and commitment to the sport.

On the other, Donovan is the greatest goal-scorer in American history, was pretty fantastic on the U.S. Gold Cup team just one year ago and, in the words of the London Daily Mail “has more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney combined.” Also the sabbatical clearly energized him.

On one hand, the U.S. is stuck in what people are calling the World Cup group of death — with Ghana, Portugal and Germany — and so are unlikely to advance anyway. Klinsmann seems to believe this is the right time, the perfect time, to break from America’s wobbly soccer past — a past Donovan represents. Klinsmann also might very be looking to make the statement that this is HIS team (with several German countrymen to prove it), and Donovan simply wasn’t his kind of player. He has not hidden his distaste for how the American media still celebrates him.*

*It would be tough to not see some personal animosity involved here after Klinsmann’s son Jonathan — a goalkeeper on the U.S. development team — wrote a mocking tweet to celebrate Donovan’s exit finished off with a blunt, “HAHA.” Jonathan deleted the Tweet and gave one of those pseudo “my sincerest apologies to anyone who was offended” apologies. But the point was not lost.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other hand, Donovan was in position to play in his fourth World Cup — putting him in that stratosphere with Pele and Diego Maradona — and he’s the most famous soccer player in the United States, and several of his teammates have been very vocal in their opinion that he belonged on the team. Bruce Arena, the 2006 national team coach and Dovovan’s coach now for the LA Galaxy, was blunt to the San Jose paper one day before the decision: “If there are 23 players better than Landon,” he said, “then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”

When Klinsmann cut Donovan, he made one of those rare decisions that people RABIDLY agree or disagree with — to the point of not even understanding the other side — which made it a perfect Twitter moment. And Twitter, predictably, exploded with soccer fans alternately hammering Klinsmann, defending him and yelling, “You just don’t know anything about soccer” at each other (as soccer fans are inclined to do).

The most fascinating part of this whole story, to me at least, is Donovan himself. He saw this coming, or at least the possibility of it coming, even when others did not. Just two days before the decision he talked about how making the team was no sure thing; he could sense Klinsmann’s wariness. Still, thinking you might get cut and actually getting cut are two different things. There is no doubt that Donovan was crushed by the choice; he did briefly mention his disappointment in a classy thank you note he wrote to fans on his Facebook page.

But, knowing Donovan a little bit, I know his feelings go much deeper than simple disappointment or anger or sadness. Frank Sinatra used to say that a big reason that his singing so deeply touched people was that he had “an acute capacity for sadness and elation.” That’s Donovan too.

At his athletic best, he was a little bit faster, a little bit bolder, a little bit more driven. If you look at his U.S. National team 57 goals, by far a record, what you often see is a young man blazing on the counterattack, sprinting past defenders who look as stationary as trees on the highway, pulling away and putting away the goal and then taking off his shirt and going to his knees to soak in the cheers. That’s Donovan at his boldest and, perhaps, his happiest.

The other times, when he was listening for music or searching for a memory to inspire him, the game was more than just challenging. He developed a reputation among some as soft, but that was never the right word. He was more like a great novelist with writer’s block. His breathtaking sprints would not yield chances. His uncanny sense of anticipation would feel blocked. He would start to think too much. Donovan admits that there are always a million thoughts buzzing around in his head, many of them about what he should be doing with his life. It’s no more surprising that he took a sabbatical from soccer than it is that he came back afterward. Unlike so many great athletes who know one destiny, Donovan was often conflicted.

And I imagine he’s conflicted now — hurt, no doubt, angry perhaps, but also contemplative. He has spent a lot of time considering his talent, his career, his life and what comes after. He has played such a big role in the how our country now consumes soccer, such a big role in making the world sport just a little bit more American. He says he wants to continue doing that; it will be interesting to see what’s next for him.

As for the team, it’s all speculation and the opinions are all over the map, but I’m guessing this would have been a better team with Landon Donovan on it. His form may be off, he may be a step slower, and he might not fit Klinsmann’s vision for this team. But he’s still the most accomplished player in the country, the best-known player in the country, he’s still capable of raising his level, and he has developed as a leader and a teammate.

Klinsmann has a plan, and as coach he should follow that plan, sentimentality aside. Still, when playing in the group of death, Klinsmann might just find that he is short a player who can score goals when he hears the music.

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  1. godsholytrousers - May 23, 2014 at 1:14 PM

    What better way to galvanize the team.
    They will be forced to fight, it is the American Way.

  2. midtec2005 - May 23, 2014 at 1:22 PM

    I actually think I understand Landons feelings right now. I don’t think burned out is the right word, but it’s almost right. I just don’t think he’s having fun with soccer at the moment, and I bet he won’t play that much longer.

    On the flip side, if he’s no longer the focal point of a team, he may loosen up some and start having fun again. A change of scenery may also help him have fun again, a.k.a. a move away from LA, and maybe MLS. Or maybe he’s frustrated with having fewer physical tools (slower), in which case he may need to reinvent his game a little. I don’t doubt his love for the game though, if anything he might love it too much. I’m glad I got to watch his national team career from the beginning.

  3. tomemos - May 23, 2014 at 1:25 PM

    So, sorry, is there a case for Donovan’s inclusion beyond “he used to be very good, and he’s an interesting guy”? Joe usually decries that kind of reasoning when it leads to big baseball contracts (see: Ryan Howard), but then he’s more expert in baseball.

    • sportsfan18 - May 23, 2014 at 2:08 PM

      The case for his inclusion you ask? Even with his age and having lost a step, there are still not 23 better American soccer players than Landon.

      Don’t compare Landon to his younger self… compare him to the 23 on the team today… he ONLY needs to be better than ONE of them to be on the team…

      • tomemos - May 23, 2014 at 2:22 PM

        This is Arena’s line, but it doesn’t really make sense. The most obvious point is that among those 23 are three goalkeepers and eight defenders, and Landon’s not going to replace any of them no matter what.

        As for the 12 midfielders and attackers, Joe doesn’t really make the case that Donovan is better than any of them, does he? He implies that Donovan should be on the team but seems to go out of his way to avoid engaging any concrete evidence.

      • tomemos - May 23, 2014 at 2:28 PM

        I mean, look at how Joe frames his case for Donovan: “As for the team, it’s all speculation and the opinions are all over the map, but I’m guessing this would have been a better team with Landon Donovan on it. His form may be off, he may be a step slower, and he might not fit Klinsmann’s vision for this team. But he’s still the most accomplished player in the country, the best-known player in the country, he’s still capable of raising his level, and he has developed as a leader and a teammate.”

        This is exactly the kind of logic Joe fricassees when it comes to baseball or football: the idea that good, concrete reasons for not taking a player are canceled out by intangibles.. Who the hell cares whether he’s the “best-known player”? Pele isn’t suiting up for Brazil, is he? What difference does “most accomplished” make? Donovan will still be the most accomplished American player four years from now; does he make the team then, too? This really reads like someone who doesn’t know the American national team, but he knows Donovan, so he’s defending him as a guy who’s fun or easy to write about rather than as an actual asset to the team.

      • Sgc - May 24, 2014 at 12:01 PM

        Actually, he could easily replace one of the 8 defenders. You look through WC history, other than the third goalkeeper, the 8th defender is by far the likeliest not to actually play. We could have brought 7, especially if one of them had been Parkhurst, who can play anywhere along the back line. (Cameron can basically do that too.)

  4. soccherblog - May 23, 2014 at 1:44 PM

    why are the tags on this Manchester United and Wayne Rooney only?

  5. nextmanup81 - May 23, 2014 at 2:27 PM

    Sportsfan – you make a very good point, it’s really the lowest common denominator of all arguments – with one minor technicality: he actually has to be better than the other players at his position that were selected rather than just one of the other 23 guys. It does him no good to be better than Nick Rimando. Here’s what this boils down to: when Jurgen was given the keys to this program, the very large majority of fans were happy to have him making the decisions. Over the course of the past few years when he took over, he’s been evaluating everyone he possibly could. He took Landon to camp as one of the best 30, and if he genuinely thinks a player like Julian Green (or another player that was assumed to be on the bubble) could be better used at the end of a close game to help the US win, do we all of a sudden not trust his judgement? He knows what is expected of him, and he has to make the decisions he feels are best for this team – and if that means leaving Landon at home because other players could better help the team, then he had to leave him off. I have no idea how good a lot of those players are, and I trust Jurgen knows what to look for better than we do.

  6. talgrath - May 23, 2014 at 3:01 PM

    Let’s say you’re the boss at your particular workplace and you have to pick which worker you will fire. One worker is young, motivated and really wants to be at work, but he still has a lot to learn; the other worker is older, he’s worked for the company for almost twenty years now and when he’s motivated he’s good at his job, but he’s not motivated anymore. Would you fire the motivated guy who needs some more training or would you fire the guy that doesn’t care about his job anymore? That’s the question Klinsmann faced, he chose the motivated players.

    • term3186 - May 23, 2014 at 3:43 PM

      If JK saw LD as a forward, then his competition is CD, JA, AJ, and CW. CD is obviously a lock, and I can’t fault AJ or JA going. But Wondo over LD…. that’s what sticks in my craw. Wondo is less than a year younger than LD, with less ability and experience. I think LD can get up for the cup, and I would much rather a guy with a proven track record of the ability to get things done in the clutch than another old guy who has never been there before and never done anything at this level.

      • kurgen99 - May 23, 2014 at 7:11 PM

        Wondo is a poacher extraordinaire. That dude scores. However I would take LD over Davis, Bedoya, Diskerud, Green or Zusi. Is Green even ever going to see the field? I hope it all goes gangbusters and Jurgen is proved a GENIUS, but man, when the clock is in OT, and we need a goal, I certainly would want Landon in there.

    • northseattlebruce - May 23, 2014 at 7:41 PM

      Oh, you mean motivated like Timmy Chandler, right? A guy who had to be begged over multiple calendar years to deign to wear the stars and stripes.

      • talgrath - May 23, 2014 at 7:49 PM

        Chandler may not have been motivated years ago, but maybe he is now, or at least he’s done a good job of making Klinsmann think he’s motivated. Of course, we’re talking apples to oranges here, Chandler plays defense and Donovan is on offense.

  7. braxtonrob - May 23, 2014 at 3:40 PM

    Very well written by Joe Posnanski.

    I would add that what may be most evident here is the gap between how a German coach makes decisions (regarding the Nat’l. Team) and how an American coach would.
    The former is PURELY about team (not to discount some likely personality clash in this case), and an American coach would be MORE sports-wise, knowing that advancing out of Group play THIS tournament is not the end-all-be-all to the ‘story’ this team is about to tell (in this tournament).

    Landon Donovan is not just a soccer player, he’s an American hero; seriously, he is!

    And if you’re comfortable looking down the bench (in what will likely be a meaningless game against Germany), and realizing that you could have EASILY justified subbing in an American hero (irregardless of your personality clash with him) to give US fans SOMETHING to cheer for this 2014 WC, realizing (finally) that you made a HUGE cultural error, then hey, by all means, be dense, and leave the American hero at home.
    BUT, don’t expect to be coaching this team beyond 2018, because that ‘ship’ has JUST ‘sailed’!
    (no matter what you ridiculously-optimistic Klinsmann fans think!)

    • bellweather22 - May 30, 2014 at 1:47 PM

      Ultimately, Klinsmann will be judged based on how well the team does in the World Cup. If the team comes up short, especially if they have trouble scoring goals, this decision will come back to haunt him, and likely will cost him his job. But Klinsmann knows that risk and has calculated that the team will be more likely, than not, to win without LD. But, I guarantee it’s not personal. Coaches don’t have the luxury of leaving players off the roster for personal reasons. They have to win. That’s all coaches are judged on. Joe gave the reasons. LDs lost a step, is old, has questionable motivation, and worst of all, doesn’t fit well in Klinsmanns style of play. If he wasn’t named Landon Donovan, the decision is a no brainer.

  8. kurgen99 - May 23, 2014 at 7:07 PM

    Good article.

    There is a possibility that Landon will be the first guy called back into camp when the inevitable injury occurs. I’m not certain that Jurgen isn’t playing the ultimate mind game here.

    • bellweather22 - May 30, 2014 at 1:51 PM

      More likely, he won’t. Klinsmann likely sees Donovan as a backup and wants to avoid the drama of the TV cameras panning, over and over, to Donovan on the bench as the US is down 1-0. With the announcers discussing ad nauseum, why Klinsmann isn’t putting him in the game.

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