…and why being left off the 2014 USMNT World Cup roster is the best thing that could have happened to him at this point in his career. First, however let’s clear away some of the obfuscating side-topics that have threatened to derail this debate.
Set aside your opinion of his decision regarding Donovan for a moment and realize that there is nothing in that decision that is inconsistent with what Klinsmann was as a player or has been as a coach. The smile, the soft voice, the California lifestyle he has adopted since retiring as a player should not mask the fact the he remains the confident, driven, and most importantly in this case, direct character he has always been. He is not the stereotypical, soul-less, German autocrat many of his detractors would wish him to be- he moved to California for a reason, after all. But at the same time, he was never- especially as a player- one of the free spirits who have flitted across the history of the game in the last 150 years. He was not the sublime Pelé, the mercurial George Best, or even the impish Lionel Messi. His joy was derived not so much from the “play” itself, but from the setting and accomplishing of goals which were achieved through the play. There is a reason why he was never given a singular- or even fitting- nickname during his career. He was a “businessman” on the pitch- a dashing and exuberant one- but a suit and tie guy just the same.
Nothing changed when he became a club or international manager. In fact, a pretty rock solid argument can be made that his choices and achievements as coach of the German national team and later at Bayern Münich are the very reason (along with the prestige that would come along with him and his accomplishments as a player and manager) that U.S. Soccer wanted him as Bob Bradley’s successor. In both of his previous managerial forays he was tasked with improving youth programs, selecting teams based on talent rather than reputation, and shifting the emphasis to a more positive, attacking style of play- is any of this sounding familiar, U.S. soccer fans? With Germany the outcome was a third place finish at the 2005 Confederations Cup and a third place finish at the 2006 World Cup. Having done much the same thing at Bayern Münich in 2008-2009, he parted ways with the club with only 5 matches remaining (and only 3 points off the lead). Bayern would finish the season in second place and only 2 points out of first place. He also took the club to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Even his harshest critics would have to admit that he lived up to, if not exceeded, expectations in both of these posts.
In short, nobody should be surprised by his decision regarding Donovan. This is the man who benched Oliver Kahn- as good a goalkeeper as has ever walked the Earth- in favor of Jens Lehmann because he felt, at that moment, Lehmann was playing better and gave Germany a better chance to win. A decision, by the way, that nobody really talks about any more because it turned out to be the right one. This is, however, where U.S. Soccer got more than they bargained for with Klinsmann. They hired him for all of the reasons I cited above, but I guarantee you that it never occurred to Sunil Gulati et al. that the “hard decisions” they hired Klinsmann to make, and particularly those regarding bringing in young, up and coming players and ushering out aging veterans, would have the name “Landon Donovan” attached to them. More about this in a few moments…
As is the case with Klinsmann, much of the tumult about Donovan’s failure to make the 2014 World Cup team seems to spring from a willful forgetfulness about who the man is and what he has done- and not done- in the past. The situation has also been complicated by the fact that, at some point in this controversy, Landon Donovan went from being a soccer player to something more resembling a demigod. He has gone from being one of the most instrumental players in this growth of American soccer (however you wish to quantify or qualify that) to the only American soccer player who has ever truly “soccered”- ever. So, as we did with Jürgen Klinsmann, let’s take a collective deep breath and look at the situation a little more dispassionately.
First of all, let us give credit where credit is due. From his debut with the USMNT in 2000 (and in MLS in 2001) through 2012 Donovan was probably the best player this country had both domestically and internationally. He won everything individually and collectively that there was to be won in MLS- whether with San Jose or Los Angeles- and internationally he won every individual honor a U.S. player can (most of them multiple times) and was part of numerous Gold Cup victories, a brilliant run in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and played- and played well- in three World Cups. Additionally, as all of this was going on he was an eloquent spokesman for MLS and the national team and the commercial face of American soccer (at least on the male side) for those who followed the game, and more importantly, for those who did not. Even those who didn’t know soccer, knew Donovan. And yet, running just underneath all of this success was something else. It was the vaguest notion of a feeling, a mere hint, that maybe, just maybe Donovan had settled for a level of success just beneath the top level, the level that would elevate him to the level of the truly elite footballer. The kind of player who dominated in, just as an example, four of Europe’s top five leagues and at the international level.
Donovan’s first attempt to “play at a higher level” came in 1999 when he signed with Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen and failed to make much of an impression, though to be fair, it appears that he struggled more off the pitch than on it. Understandable, on the one hand, for a 17 year old, but on the other hand, plenty of teenaged players settle in just fine and many of them lack the globe-trotting, international youth football experience and savvy that Donovan already possessed at that point in his career. Donovan made two more attempts to “make it” in Germany- a second with Bayer Leverkusen and a final one with Bayern Münich…under Jürgen Klinsmann. For whatever reason, he did not make the grade and instead of perservering he opted to return to MLS and the success he had found there in between these attempts at greater things. Eventually, Donovan would find success at a higher level with two loan spells at Everton in the Premier League, and the Toffees were eager to sign him outright on both occasions. Supposedly, MLS/L.A. Galaxy had no interest in Everton’s offer for Donovan, but I have to believe that if “LANDON DONOVAN” had truly wanted the move, it would have happened. Instead, another return to MLS and, if not the “easy” life, at least the “known” life and the level of success and notoriety that went with it. Then there was the “sabbatical” just as the USMNT was ramping up it’s qualification process for the World Cup. I don’t begrudge Donovan this break- he’d more than earned it in the previous decade plus- but to think it would not have any consequences upon his return (which wasn’t even a certainty) was, at best, naive, and at worst, egomaniacal. I think we can also all agree that, whatever the reasons, he has not been the same player since his return.
I think we can also agree that some of these factors- not trying hard enough to be a success in Germany, taking some “me time” when the USMNT needed him most, bad-mouthing David Beckham publicly when things got off to a rocky start at the beginning of Beckham’s tenure with the L.A. Galaxy- did not sit well with Klinsmann on several levels. They spoke of a player whose commitment to his career might have been 99.99% but that fell well short of the “1000%” figure Klinsmann uses regularly when talking of USMNT players. It also spoke of a player whose first thought was himself and not his team- domestically or internationally- and if Klinsmann has made any one point repeatedly during his days as a manager it is that “team” comes first, second, and third- just ask the aforementioned Oliver Kahn. Finally, all of these things spoke so a reputation that Donovan had almost seemed to shake during the more recent years of his career- that he is a bit of a diva. As he and his career matured even his detractors had, for the most part, dropped the “Landycakes” nickname that had plagued him since his teenage years. The idea being that his talent and marketability had caused MLS and U.S. Soccer to clear all possible obstacles from his path and that in doing so they’d created a player who, as successful as he was, was not appreciative of his position, and a bit “soft” when faced with obstacles that these two groups could not remove- success beyond MLS, for example.
None of this is meant to diminish Donovan’s success, rather, to put it in perspective, as that’s what many USMNT supporters seem to have lost in recent days. Please allow me to offer a resupply of this perspective with the help of some succinct bullet points, each brimming with my opinions:
Which brings us to the crux of the matter, or, how being left off the 2014 World Cup roster is, at this point in his career, the best thing that could have happened to Landon Donovan.
Without continuing obligations to the USMNT Donovan- who has recently admitted that he can no longer train with the regularity and intensity he used to due to the wear and tear of his long career- can now focus on playing for the Galaxy for as long as his body and his desire hold up. My guess is probably one or two more campaigns after this year’s, at which point he’ll be 35 and ready to walk away- after what I’m sure will be an over-the-top MLS-generated “Farewell Tour.” What comes after that? Who knows? Riding off into the Manhattan Beach sunset, TV work, coaching? Whatever the case, it will happen in the time and manner of his choosing- a right he has earned.
Even the most rudimentary cost-benefit analysis suggests that there is very little, if anything to be gained by Donovan by playing in Brazil. The U.S. has limited expectations for this World Cup (as Klinsmann has noted in recent interviews) and Donovan’s legacy needs no further burnishing at this point. Even so, the likelihood of him doing something in Brazil that would elevated his stature is slim. Let’s say he had gone, and that things had gone as well as they have ever gone for both he and the U.S.- would his legacy look any different? Four World Cups rather than three? A goal or two more? Making the knockout stage again? Would people rate him any higher than they clearly do already? I doubt it. And that’s the key right there, “doubt.”
In not going, the question of how things would have gone with Landon in the team (or at least on the bench) will always be an open one and that will burnish his legacy in most people’s minds, if not on paper. If the U.S. fails to move past the group stage? Well, if Landon had been there they would have! If the U.S. forwards are profligate with their scoring chances? Landon would have finished those! Even if the USMNT has their best tournament of the post-1990 era, Landon wins. They would have even better if he’d been there! Klinsmann becomes even more the “bad guy” in this situation- whether he deserves to wear the schwarzen Hut or not (he doesn’t).
The only mistake Donovan could make at this point and the only way he could diminish his legacy would be to travel to Brazil to do TV commentary. Regardless of how well he might perform in this role it will still look like a case of sour grapes. Any criticism of Klinsmann or any player who “went in his place” will strike the wrong note- even if Donovan is 1000% right. Landon should stay at home, run on the beach with his dog Santi, let the chips in Brazil fall as they may, and have a good long think about what the next few years can hold for him both professionally and personally. He had a good run- a great run- one of the best runs in USMNT history, but it has come to an end, just as it did for Jurgen Klinsmann- after his third World Cup.