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Distorted reality: Donovan’s comments understate problems with his candidacy

May 24, 2014, 8:13 PM EDT

donovan_scrum AP

Eddie Johnson played his way out of Brazil. Brad Evans’ injuries and play certainly didn’t help his standing in the U.S.’s battle at right back. Their candidacies for Brazil 2014 may have been doomed by other factors, but after playing regular roles in World Cup qualifying, neither U.S. international did themselves any favors through the first two months of the Major League Soccer season.

Landon Donovan is in that group, too, but unlike Evans and Johnson, the U.S. icon didn’t have a litany of qualifying contributions to fall back on. Last month’s camp in Arizona as well as his play throughout the MLS season were even more important. While Donovan hasn’t been terrible for the Galaxy this season, he has played well below his standards, creating a World Cup candidacy that was more about legacy and potential than the form he carried into Palo Alto, Calif.

Tellingly, Donovan doesn’t see it that way. Speaking to the media for the first time since Thursday’s surprise announcement, the 32-year-old pointed to his “performances’ before the U.S.’s May camp as part of the reason he deserved a place in Brazil:

“Based on my performances leading up to camp, based on my preparation for the camp, based on my fitness, based on my workload, based on the way I trained and played in camp, I not only thought I was a part of the 23, I thought I was in contention to be starting. That’s why this has all been pretty disappointing.”

Donovan has every right to be disappointed. There’s a strong case to be made that, even amid a slow start to the season, he is one of the 23 best U.S. soccer players available. To act like his current play reflects that, however, trivializes the complexities of his candidacy.

If one of Donovan’s arguments to be included is “performances leading into camp,” what is he looking at? A season with the Galaxy that’s seen Stefan Ishizaki and Baggio Husidic play as well as one of the team’s Designated Players? Based on that alone, Klinsmann is more than justified in doubting whether Donovan would have an impact in Brazil.

If Donovan’s “preparation for the camp” was so strong, why didn’t we see that on the field in the weeks leading up to his arrival in Palo Alto? Perhaps that was just the fluke of a small sample, but the returns from the sample were no different from what we’ve seen from Donovan throughout the season. While he hasn’t been as bad as his more ardent detractors claim, Donovan never made the case for his indispensability in Brazil.

While talking to the press on Saturday, Donovan noted he’s traditionally very level-headed when evaluating his own performance, but his descriptions of his recent performances don’t reflect reality. Going into Palo Alto, he’d done nothing to move off the bubble that’d formed post-Mexico. If Donovan had a case for Brazil, it wasn’t on the strength of his MLS performances.

source: AP

Through seven games this MLS season, Landon Donovan has no goals and two assists. His next goal will leave him alone on top of MLS’s all-time scoring list. (Photo: AP)

That he can’t recognize his own struggles hints at a huge dissonance – a difference between his perception of his candidacy and what we’ve seen over the last two months. Did the same view that saw his pre-camp performances as World Cup-caliber also overvalue his fitness? Donovan needed to show up to Northern California in better shape than he did in Arizona. How much really changed in the month between the April friendly and the May camp?

Potentially a lot, but Donovan may be suffering from the same biases that undermine every person’s ability to assess their own strengths. He’s created a standard that’s put a premium on something he’s capable of attaining: competitiveness in the May camp.

From Klinsmann’s point of view, that standard may have never existed. Talking about how well he performed in Palo Alto, Donovan implies outplaying teammates in one week’s worth of workouts should overshadow the information Klinsmann collected over the last three years. Clearly, it did not.

It’s reasonable for Klinsmann to side with all that information instead of one week’s worth. It’s also reasonable for Donovan to expect being named to the 30-man roster meant he time to improve his case. That, unfortunately, is the saddest part of this saga. There is no right or wrong, here. There’s only what could have been.

Klinsmann and Donovan are both intelligent men, particularly as it concerns soccer. Unfortunately, they could never get on the same page. After three years with Klinsmann as his coach, Donovan still didn’t know what it took to make the World Cup.

  1. rphillish - May 24, 2014 at 9:10 PM

    The only problem with Donavan’s candidacy was that coach never liked him.
    Yes, I’m still bitter.

    • tariencole - May 24, 2014 at 10:12 PM

      I don’t agree with that. While there may have been a communication breakdown between the two, Donovan hasn’t been playing well this year. Bradley beat him out in the fitness challenge. If Donovan was so fit, why was he taking breaks in training?

      Donovan may or may not be accurate in general at evaluating his performance, but he’s not doing himself any justice by appealing to form in his argument. We all can see it hasn’t been there.

      I’m not convinced LD shouldn’t have been in the 23. But if his inclusion as a bench player would’ve created more distraction than his being cut now, then it’s better for the team to get it behind them.

      • tcb23 - May 25, 2014 at 3:32 PM

        The line of reasoning (which I’ve seen in a few other places) that Donovan had poor fitness because Bradley beat him in a fitness test makes no sense. Bradley’s the fittest guy on the team, and this is a team with a reputation for good fitness. If being less fit than Bradley means you should be cut, then everyone except Bradley should have been cut.

        I have no idea where Donovan finished overall in the test, but if he finished second to Bradley and ahead of the rest of the team then he’s in excellent shape.

        If he finished last or near last, then of course that’s another story.

      • tariencole - May 25, 2014 at 3:50 PM

        He also asked for breaks during training. That isn’t consistent with being fit. Donovan *always* won that challenge. Bradley winning it ought to have been a warning bell to Donovan. Honestly lots of things ought to have been. But he didn’t seem to get them.

      • kurgen99 - May 30, 2014 at 12:41 AM

        Frankie Hedjuk always won when he was in camp

  2. Dan Haug - May 24, 2014 at 9:46 PM

    Your post is either delusional, or disingenuous click bait.

    “… Donovan implies outplaying teammates in one week’s worth of workouts should overshadow the information Klinsmann collected over the last three years. Clearly, it did not.”

    Out of the players that Donovan has been competing with for roster spots, how many have outplayed him over the last three years? How many over the last 12 months? How many over the last two months?

    Here are some stats for you. In 2013 Donovan led the USMNT in both goals (tied with Altidore) and assists. Yeah… he racked up some stats in the Gold Cup (5 goals & 7 assists), but Bedoya, Mix, and Wondo were all there as well. Of those four, who was the best player (by a mile)? Oh… then there was the Mexico qualifier in Columbus where Donovan assisted the first goal and scored the second. For any other player in the USMNT pool, 2013 would have been a career year.

    A few months later, you are seriously going to assert that, because of a bad run of form in the early season, and ONE friendly performance (all of which were hindered by tendinitis in his knee), all these other guys are ahead of him?

    Bob Ley from ESPN reported these stats:
    U.S. Forwards & Donovan, Past Calendar Year
    Wondo – 22 Goals, 32 chances created
    Donovan – 17 Goals, 123 chances created
    Dempsey – 13 Goals, 45 chances created
    Altidore – 9 Goals, 37 chances created

    In addition, Donovan has been rounding into form this season, with his last two performances being quite strong. His finishing touch still isn’t where it should be, but he was the best player on the pitch in his last match against Portland.

    Further more, having listened to the entirety of the interview that you are basing this piece on… it’s pretty clear that you took an incredibly professional and mature interview and tried to twist it into something controversial. I suggest that any reader of this post listen to the entirety of this completely reasonable interview and make their own judgements about the quality of this piece.

    The only person “distorting reality” is you, Mr. Farley.

    • Richard Farley - May 24, 2014 at 11:41 PM

      Why do you think “the information Klinsmann collected over the last three years” in confined to stats produced on the field? I understand that suits your point best, but it’s also one part of a entire set of information Klinsmann presumable used in making this decision. There’s a reason a said “information” and not “stats” or “numbers”.

      And regarding twisting Landon’s quote, I’m comfortable letting others judge for themselves.

      Thanks for the detailed comment, though. I appreciate you taking the time.

      • Dan Haug - May 25, 2014 at 3:53 AM

        My comment includes a lot more than stats. Donovan’s performance in the Gold Cup was one of the best performances by a senior USMNT player in any tournament EVER. His play in the Mexico match was excellent as well. As I pointed out, his play in his most recent games was quite good regardless of stats. Your entire post implies that Donovan’s point of view is “distorted reality”, as you titled the post. I presented a bunch of evidence that undermines your argument.

        You twist a single statement in his 15 minute interview into Donovan not being able to “recognize his own struggles”, and yet you have virtually no information about anything that went on in camp that will contradict Donovan’s assessment (other than Klinsmann cutting him… which is just a circular argument).

        I often appreciate your posts (and have commented in the past to let you know that), but this entire post is simply unsupported hyperbole.

      • chesschum - May 25, 2014 at 8:09 AM

        Richard, with all due respect, I too think you misrepresented what Donovan said. His point was almost entirely about the camp and surrounding events, not his performance in MLS so far this season. Your characterization of it was considerably different from that, in both tone and substance.

      • wandmdave - May 30, 2014 at 1:27 PM

        I think those stats are likely skewed considering Dempsey and Altidore were playing in qualifiers and high quality friendlies. Wondo was in lower quality friendlies and Donovan was primarily playing in a Gold Cup where we played primarily B sides from a weaker region or really really poor A sides.

    • talgrath - May 25, 2014 at 12:24 AM

      If we’re looking at who outplayed Donovan in the last three months, that’s everyone on the roster. Donovan has zero goals since the goal cup, only two assists in MLS. In the friendly against Mexico Donovan was practically non existent once he was subbed on, in fact the US looked worse once he was on the field. Let’s not forget though that pure stats aren’t the only factor here, when Donovan took that “sabbatical” (really, vacation), he said that he needed a break from soccer; there’s nothing wrong with that, but it shows something that has been a problem for a while; Donovan may not be motivated to play at the highest levels anymore. Can you honestly tell me that the 23 guys on that roster right now aren’t more motivated than Donovan?

      • Dan Haug - May 26, 2014 at 1:46 AM

        Yes. Donovan shows up for the big moments. Just like tonight. Go to twitter and look at the tweets from optastats tonight.

        Donovan has not been at his best of late, but he has outplayed more than half of the attacking corps that Klinnsman is taking to Brazil.

      • talgrath - May 26, 2014 at 4:14 AM

        He tapped in an easy ball against Philadelphia, one of the worst teams in the league. I don’t think Klinsmann has any regrets (and I don’t either about my comment).

      • donjuego - May 26, 2014 at 11:44 AM

        Zero goals since gold cup? Ahem. Columbus, Ohio v Mexico. Plus assist.

      • donjuego - May 26, 2014 at 11:47 AM

        No goals since gold cup? Columbus Ohio v Mexico.

      • reidldavis - May 30, 2014 at 10:23 AM

        Form is very important. Just look at Altidore, who’s been on fire for Sunderland. Oh. Wait.

  3. Damidwesterner - May 24, 2014 at 11:14 PM

    Who does he think he is, Fernando Torres?

    • reformed2012 - May 26, 2014 at 4:15 AM

      And both players have a common trait: they show up when it matters.

      Let’s wait for the moment where we are down 3-0 against Brazil in the final with only 10 minutes to go, looking for Donovan on the bench and you just realized you did not bring him to the flight at all.

  4. bayoor75 - May 25, 2014 at 12:45 AM

    Is the writer an idiot? Does he know anything about soccer?

    “he has played well below his standards, creating a World Cup candidacy that was more about legacy and potential than the form”.

    No matter how you slice and dice it, LD deserves to be in the squad. Let’s take a look at the dumb argument advanced by this writer – LD hasn’t played at his best for the last 3 years. WC roster spot is NOT dependent on one (1) player’s form in the last 3 years. You compare individual players and choose those that are in the best form. Even, if LD hasn’t been at his best, he has been better than most of the players on that roster. Let’s see:

    Almost half of the WC roster played at last year’s gold cup. Guess who won the best player? And the co joint top scorer? Yes, it’s LD.

    Ok, LD’s form has dipped a little in the last 3 years, but what has Julian Green done in the last 3 years that makes him worthy over LD?

    Hasn’t Dempsey’s form decline too? He has struggle for the last 2+ years. And since this idiot writer said we shouldn’t consider most recent form, we might as well ignore Deuce’s 6 goals in the MLS this season.

    Hasn’t Altidore’s form dipped? 2 goals in 33+ games? How is that better than LD’s form?

    What about Chandler and Fabian Johnson? Their USMNT forms have been very inconsistent!

    Julian Green hasn’t done anything of note in the last 3 years. Playing in Bayern II is NOT an achievement.

    Mix Diskerud of Rosenberg in Norway. Need I say more?

    I hate when people try to twist logic to support one decision or the next. The facts in this case are clear and simple:

    1. Klinsmann promised Julian Green a WC roster spot this year if he switches his allegiance to the US. Klinsmann did not need to do that as Green had been informed in February by Low and Bierhoff (German national team manager) that his chances with Die Mannschaft was remote considering all the young stars that they have now.

    2. Klinsmann has a personal problem with LD. Gist is that he largely blamed LD for his firing from Bayern in 2009. LD was supposed to be the highlight of that signing class and he flamed out in Germany. He has continue to use that episode and comparison to evaluate LD. This will not give a fair comparison because he is using his memory of LD training with international superstars in 2009 to evaluate LD in 2014, largely against a bunch of soccer misfits from the US (yes, at this point, only Bradley and the goalkeepers can be called superstars).

    • lucimorland - May 25, 2014 at 5:43 PM

      You are spot on, bayoor75. It’s obvious to anyone (at least, anyone without an agenda) that Jurgen does not like Landon and that this animosity drove the decision to leave him off the team.

      It’s a black mark for the team and I fear it will cost them dearly in the tournament.

  5. greenhagen - May 25, 2014 at 12:56 AM

    I’m sorry but this article is terrible. Why don’t you quantify your statement regarding his poor play?

    Sure his finishing has been poor. But his passing and creativity are as good as ever. And he’s certainly dealing with a lot of changes (two new MF teammates, new formstion), is finally recovered from a knee tweak, and is playing MF when he scores much more often up top. But more to the point, LD isn’t the only player not lighting up their league (JG – injury, Altidore, etc).

    I think the biggest issue is that we don’t know JKs evaluation criteria. Clearly LD has performed better than some of the competition in almost every area, but not better than all the competition in all areas. I’d have much preferred that JK say “LD is a great player but I feel the US is a better team without him”. At least then we’d understand that performance isn’t the only (primary?) factor in making the team.

  6. braxtonrob - May 25, 2014 at 8:17 AM

    Farley, normally I like your articles, but it’s writing like this that make me question if you’re really a soccer fan at all.

    I expect backlash towards a player that has been on such a high pedestal for so long, but I would expect a (truly) knowledgeable US soccer fan to know a cut (CLEARLY) based on personal animosity when they see one.

    I don’t know what’s blinding your vision @ this Klinsmann decision … maybe it’s the same RIDICULOUSLY-rampant optimism other Jurgen-fans are exhibiting on these boards, but please man, come to your senses now (instead of having to apologize for articles like these a month from now).

  7. guerojose - May 25, 2014 at 10:36 AM

    I, for one, do not accept Donovan’s characterization of his own performance in camp. I imagine the other players would have some reply to claims that he outperformed all of them, but of course they can’t exactly go to the media right now. It’s unfortunate that he chose to, as it does nothing but satisfy his ego’s need to strike back. It certainly does not help the team or the coaches in any way, and therefore is probably the clearest indication of all that the decision – for the good of the team – was the correct one.

    • tcb23 - May 25, 2014 at 3:52 PM

      People saying he’s being selfish and egotistical are taking his statements out of context. If you watch the video he’s level-headed and professional about it. He said he disagrees with the decision and is disappointed but supports the team and wants to put it behind him. Klinsmann said the same thing. It’s about as mature a reaction as you could hope for.

    • braxtonrob - May 25, 2014 at 6:21 PM

      @guerojose, I continue to be BAFFLED by replies like yours.

      Donovan HAD to make a follow-up statement, because the media would NOT have let it go.
      Plus, he was honest about how HE felt about the cut, and he clearly stated that this statement was the “END” of it, meaning he’s trying to put it to rest as efficiently as possible.

      If you have a problem with his honesty, fine, but I think he has been SUPREMELY diplomatic about the whole thing.

      • guerojose - May 25, 2014 at 7:42 PM

        I share your bafflement. I’m baffled by all the experts who appear to have far more insight than Klinsmann does, and will unfortunately seize upon Donovan’s words. Perhaps he could’ve stopped at “I’m disappointed” and let it go at that. To my ears, the ego and entitlement come in when he feels the need to claim superior performance to everyone else in camp, and the implicit criticism of Klinsmann’s ability to adequately assess his players.

        But whatever, everyone has an opinion, and what’s done is done. I’m sure the professional grumblers are praying for failure, so they can shout “toldyaso”. For my part I hope some scorching runs late in a game from Yedlin or Green end up tipping the scales. Not so I can claim foresight, but so that the team progresses, and Klinsmann gets a bit of the recognition he deserves – as the best thing to happen to US soccer in a long time.

  8. sburns20 - May 25, 2014 at 11:08 AM

    I believe Team Captin Howard stated last week ld is one of the best 2 or 3 in camp. Juergen has some mending to do with the guys he is bringing as some actually wanted to go try to win for this year not 2018 and the future. Howard, Dempsey, and Bradley would feel a whole lot better if they looked to the bench and saw landen or Goodson as opposed to young kids they’ve never played with and who have looked lost in their very limited time with the US Mens team.

    • chesschum - May 25, 2014 at 11:21 PM

      Tim Howard isn’t the captain; Clint Dempsey is.

  9. el timo - May 25, 2014 at 11:37 AM

    I’m not in camp, let alone on the field, so I don’t know how slow, or gimpy, or distracted Donovan may be these days. But Farley is right that Donovan just hasn’t made any sort of case for himself this year. My own theory from watching Dempsey and Bradley step up their game big-time after March is that Donovan couldn’t do the same because he had to nurse some injury or other, and had to gamble that JK would give him a pass. Which of course JK couldn’t, and didn’t. In the words of Michael Corleone, spoken through a broken jaw, “It’s not personal. It’s business.”

  10. heelfans - May 25, 2014 at 11:07 PM

    Mr. Farley– congrats on an excellent analysis! In both this article and your previous one on LD you came extremely close to nailing what I think was the overriding issue — professionalism. If fans have been paying attention to JK even before he became coach, they would understand that JK is adamant about changing the CULTURE of soccer in the US. (It’s why he was hired!). That means, above all, professionalism. It means 7 X 24 commitment to being the best and competing against the best. If you understand how important it is to JK that that level of professionalism is instilled into our young players, then you will understand why JK would never consider LD as his poster boy. “Sabbaticals”‘ really! Failure to compete against the best in Europe!! OMG ! Wonder why Dempsey is captain?? LD is an outstanding player who thrived on being the biggest fish in the small MLS pond. The next generation of US players will not have that option if JK has his way! And I agree!

    • chesschum - May 25, 2014 at 11:20 PM

      Well, heelfans, you’re about half right. JK does want to change the US soccer culture, and I applaud him for that; it needed changing. But it’s hard to see how that accounts for his decision to leave Donovan off the US roster. The sabbatical didn’t result in Donovan’s dismissal from the national team (at least, not until a few days ago), nor did playing in MLS (not to mention that Donovan had a few spots of fairly successful play at Everton). After the sabbatical JK made Donovan play his way back onto the national team, which he did. And, concerning the point about MLS versus Europe, a higher percentage of JK’s choices for the national team are playing in MLS than ever before, which has been a trend over the past couple of years (you can look it up). So, while your general point is more or less correct, I can’t see that it has any relevance to JK’s leaving Donovan off the roster for the World Cup.

    • donjuego - May 26, 2014 at 11:54 AM

      I’ll take LD’s professionalism over JK’s any day of the week. JK has failed at every coaching job he ever held. One of only three coaches is history of a big soccer power hosting the World Cup to not win.

  11. paxonst - May 26, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    Donovan “shot himself in the foot” before camp when he said he could “put out” 100% everyday for the two weeks of camp. He set himself up for failure. Klinsmann is all about having a positive attitude. Donovan’s defeatest statements just wasn’t going to sit well with Klinsmann.

  12. reidldavis - May 30, 2014 at 10:17 AM

    Someone else blinded by goals who can’t properly analyze play. Go and research where Donovan stands in chances created, both for MLS (this year, even) and the USMNT. Do that. I’ll wait.

  13. mazblast - Jun 1, 2014 at 8:53 PM

    I get the feeling that Landon’s litany of “I need time off, but…”, “I’m not fit yet, but…”, and “I know I’m not what I used to be, but I’m the face of US soccer” had JK saying, “I’m tired of him calling me ‘butt’.”

    There’s always been a sense of entitlement with Donovan, an “it’s all about me” attitude, and perhaps Klinsmann had finally had enough considering Landon’s physical decline.

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