Landon Donovan – We Hardly Knew Ye

In Front Page, The Breakdown by Aaron WestLeave a Comment

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It was the low point of my soccer watching career. I sat on the cold tile, naked but for my boxer briefs, moping at 9 AM. The United States were about to fall out of the group stage of the 2010 World Cup, at the deadly hands of Algeria. There were but a few minutes left, all hope was lost. As I sat there and whined, the players on the field continued to fight.

Tim Howard started it all. It was his throw that sparked the attack. Had he gone for a simple “keep possession and build from the back” toss to a center back, I wouldn’t be writing this. The recipient of this Herculean toss was none other than Landon Donovan. As Donovan carried the ball forward, dishing a pass to Jozy Altidore, the play seemed too far out left to really force a chance on goal. But Jozy did his best to cross to Clint Dempsey, whose point blank effort was quickly parried away by the Algerian keeper. All hope was lost.

Until, that is, Landon Donovan came flying into the 18 yard box. Slyly tapping the ball in, Donovan capped off one of the most unforgettable moments in US soccer history. The American players piled into the most joyous of celebrations, as Ian Darke screamed “GO GO USA.” It was the moment that thrust Landon Donovan from the US soccer icon to American icon.

It’s the type of moment you find yourself watching over and over again on those long, early summer nights that accompany the beginning of a World Cup summer. In fact, that’s what I was doing on the night of May 21st,, 2014. I had no idea the dark foreshadowing I was partaking in. For the next day, Jurgen Klinsmann released his World Cup roster.

Donovan wasn’t there. Evidently, he’s one of the 30 best American players, but not one of the 23 best. A nation was in shock, and we have yet to truly receive answers. We were told that Donovan’s form and fitness were lacking, indeed Donovan himself said as much, at least before he was cut.

Critics will tell you that Donovan had aged too much. He’s not the player we saw in 2010. He didn’t even score in his seven MLS games before the World Cup training camp! Plus, his “sabbatical” proves that Landon just doesn’t have the mental toughness that Jurgen Klinsmann desires in his players.

Some of this is true, to an extent. He’s not the player he was in 2010, not all the time. But he was still capable of producing absolute genius on the pitch, as all great players can. He proved this in his first post-World Cup game. Donovan, with two goals and an assist – an early assist – set a new MLS all time goal record – he had been tied for the record previously – and led his Los Angeles Galaxy to a 4-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union. 

It’s only one game, I know that. Plus Donovan had a great motivator – proving Klinsmann wrong. That was the consensus opinion at the time, but since the “snub” Donovan has been in terrific form in MLS. He’s played 20 games, scored 10 goals, and recorded 13 assists. Granted, he is one on of the best teams in the league, and he plays alongside the best striker in MLS, Robbie Keane, but how much of that is due to Landon’s presence?

Now, the sabbatical. Landon has been accused of “abandoning” his team and country in the midst of a qualifying campaign. This is plainly false. While Landon was taking time off, this was no different than an injured player taking time off. Well, there was one difference – rather than healing say, a sprained knee, Donovan was tending to his mental health. According to the CDC, 9.1% of adults suffer from depression, with 4.1% suffering from major depression. The massive industry devoted to anti-depressants and other pharmaceutical drugs lends further credence to the fact that mental health struggles are quite legitimate, and affect all types of people. 

I had the chance to discuss this with the man himself last August, at the International Champions Cup – a friendly tournament – in Miami last summer. Specifically, I mentioned his talk to a group of students at USC, where he had talked about how he took his ‘sabbatical’ for mental health reasons. I could tell that this was a topic that meant a great deal to Landon, though I can’t say the same for the rest of the soccer world.

While American society has evolved somewhat on the topic of mental health, some fans’ reaction to Donovan’s time off shows that in many ways society has not changed. He is seen as weak for taking care of something that is in truth no different than a physical injury.

 I suppose then, that Michael Bradley abandoned his team and country just before the Costa Rica match in September, as he injured his ankle and was forced to miss both the Costa Rica match and the Mexico match that followed. Of course, that’s not true, but in my eyes his recovery from an injury is no different from that of Donovan.

Some have pointed to the sabbatical as another in a long list of personal issues that Klinsmann had with Donovan. A sort of meta power struggle for the heart and soul of US soccer. Indeed, some folks have taken Jonathan Klinsmann’s disparaging tweet about Donovan getting cut as proof of the ill will that Jurgen (and the Klinsmann household) harbor for Donovan. I’m not going to surmise as much from a tweet, but I will say I didn’t find the young Klinsmann’s tweet very respectful or considerate. Neither did Mike Magee, who parodied the tweet after Donovan’s brace against Philadelphia.

Just as Donovan moved on, with the brace – and then a goal in the next game against the Chicago Fire – the US team moved on too. They won all three of their pre-World Cup friendlies, and in Brazil, this pattern continued. The US beat Ghana in a thrilling 2-1 opener, drew Portugal 2-2, and then passed through the group even in spite of a 1-0 loss to Germany. We all know what happened next, as the US lost to Belgium 2-1 in extra time. Admittedly, the team got the same result as they did in 2010, and without Donovan. However, he did loom over the events. There were consistent cries of “he would have…” and then usually an assertion of Donovan’s presence creating on-field success. Perhaps his presence would have changed things, in June I had thought so, but now I am not so sure.

Klinsmann’s omission of Donovan raised plenty of questions. Some that have been answered, some that are yet to be answered, and some that will never be answered. The ending of this story came soon after the World Cup. In early August, nearly a year to the day of our meeting in Miami, Landon announced he would retire at the end of this MLS season. Awkwardly, he was called up by Klinsmann to face Ecuador, in a game that will serve as a tribute to Landon and his USMNT career. Klinsmann has said that Landon will play 30 minutes.

That’s not nearly enough time to honor Landon’s legacy, a legacy much larger than any of his US soccer peers. At the same time, one can see how Klinsmann would rather use the friendlies to judge his player pool, rather than “waste” time honoring a player who is not in the future plans of the USA. Clearly, Klinsmann’s opinion on sentimentality hasn’t changed since June.

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Aaron West

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