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A FOND FAREWELL TO THE STRANGE ESTRANGEMENT

Landon Donovan played his final match for the U.S. National Team, a 1-1 tie with Ecuador in a friendly in East Hartford, CT.

An adoring sellout crowd of 36,265 at Rentschler Field bade farewell to Donovan, 32, who leaves as the USA’s all-time leader in goals (57), assists (58), starts (142) and minutes played (12,853).

Donovan played a small part in Mix Diskerud’s goal in the fifth minute.  He later rang the right post with a shot in the 25th minute, grounded an attempt wide and saw another shot smothered by Ecuadoran ‘keeper Maximo Banguera before exiting for Joe Corona in the 41st.  In the 88th minute, with Donovan long gone, striker Enner Valencia spoiled the party somewhat when he equalized on a looping shot.

Donovan’s 157 caps are second only to Cobi Jones’ 164; the U.S. was 90-36-31 when he played, and 11-3-5 when he was captain.  He played a record 15 years as a member of the full U.S. team, tied with a non-field player, goalkeeper Kasey Keller.   Donovan was a seven-time winner of the Honda Player of the Year award and was named U.S. Soccer Athlete of the Year four times.

The impish forward-midfielder announced two months ago that he will also retire as a player when the Los Angeles Galaxy’s season concludes later this fall.  He is Major League Soccer’s all-time leader in goals (144) and assists (136), and has won five MLS championships.  [October 10]

Comment:   Thus endth the international career of the greatest player ever produced by America.  With about five minutes left in the half, Donovan and coach Juergen Klinsmann, who controversially cut Donovan from his 2014 World Cup squad, exchanged an awkward embrace at the touchline, and the only U.S. male soccer player many Americans could name was gone.  Over the past five months the snub–costing Donovan a U.S.-record fourth trip to a World Cup–became the biggest soap opera in U.S. National Team history, dwarfing the sacking of captain John Harkes by then-coach Steve Sampson on the eve of the 1998 World Cup.   What began as a discussion of player form and the subjective nature of a coach’s player selections mushroomed to almost Freudian proportions.

No one will know exactly how this coda to Donovan’s career in red, white and blue came about.  Most will summarize it by pointing to Donovan’s five-month soccer sabbatical in 2012-13, causing the driven Klinsmann to question the player’s commitment to the national team and his profession in general.  But this appears to be a case of Klinsmann regarding Donovan as a prized pupil, a player held to a much higher standard than, say, defender and dual citizen Timmy Chandler, who waffled from 2011 to 2013 before at long last agreeing to play for the U.S., not his homeland, Germany.

Here’s what Klinsmann had to say the day before the Ecuador friendly:

“As a coach, you always want to see a player drive for his 100 percent.  I’m looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there.  But he had a tremendous career and he deserves that farewell tomorrow night and all the compliments on your end as well.”

And Klinsmann’s wishes go all the way back to 2008, when Donovan, who had already struck out as a kid with Bayer Leverkusen and was striking out on loan to  Bayern Munich, had nevertheless captured the fancy of Munich’s coach.  That  happened to be Klinsmann, who would last only one stormy season with the club known in Germany as FC Hollywood.  Said German legend and Munich general manager Uli Hoeness later, “Juergen really wanted us to sign the guy, but to be honest, he wasn’t even good enough for our second team.”  (Donovan would go on to prove his European mettle during loan stints in England with Everton in 2010 and 2012.)

So where did it go sour between Donovan and the man who some six years ago was one of his biggest boosters?  And why?  Did Klinsmann chase Donovan into a premature retirement as a professional player?  It should be noted that Klinsmann won a European Championship when he was Donovan’s age and two years later he played in one more World Cup.  So it should also be asked how much more Donovan could’ve accomplished in MLS as an elder statesman.  But the primary question remains the one fans have been asking since the U.S. was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup on July 1:  What would Landon Donovan have done in Brazil?

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U.S. 1, HONDURAS 0

Clint Dempsey scored an impressive first-half goal to lift the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Honduras on a rainy, breezy night at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium, giving new coach Juergen Klinsmann his first win in four tries.

The opportunistic Hondurans out-shot the Americans, 13-11.  U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard took care of the on-target shots with a series of spectacular saves.

Dempsey struck in the 36th minute.  Midfielder Brek Shea sent a sharp grounded cross from the right through traffic for the Fulham standout, who pulled the ball back to his left, then wheeled to beat defender Mauricio Sabillon and curl a left-footed shot high into the Honduran net from 15 yards.

Among Klinsmann’s choices was German-born Danny Williams, a midfielder from Bundesliga upstart Hoffenheim who days earlier obtained his U.S. passport.  [October 8]

Comment:  Amazing but true:  The U.S. did not give up an early goal in the match.  In fact, the U.S. scored first.  Does this mean–four games into the Klinsmann era–that the Bob Bradley curse has been broken?

Comment II:  Three nights later at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, U.S. 0, Ecuador 1, in another friendly.  The goal came 11 minutes from time, as substitute Jaime Ayovi ducked in front of young Red Bulls defender Tim Ream to nod Walter Ayovi’s left-side cross past Howard from close range. 

Apparently the Bradley curse has been replaced by a Bradley-Klinsmann curse, one that has damned the U.S. to 21 goals scored in its last 23 matches.  Klinsmann can’t get out there and score for his American charges–the sticking point is more his German citizenship than his age.  But as the opportunities to experiment wind down and the CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers loom, it’s becoming increasingly unsettling to know that the best goal-scorer on the U.S. bench is the old guy in the white dress shirt.  [October 11]



EX-WORLD CUP REFEREE BUSTED FOR HEROIN

Former FIFA referee Byron Moreno, a hated figure in Italy for calls he made in the 2002 World Cup that helped eliminate the Azzurri, was arrested in New York by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after he was caught at JFK Airport with more than 10 pounds of heroin.

Moreno had arrived in New York on a commercial flight from his native Ecuador when the heroin was discovered during a routine search.  Moreno “became visibly nervous” during the inspection, and agents eventually found 10 plastic bags attached to his stomach, back and legs.  A federal judge in Brooklyn ordered him held without bail on a drug smuggling charge.

The news of the arrest was greeted in Italy with another round of derision.

“I think Moreno already had the (heroin) in 2002, but not in his underwear–in his body,” said Gianluigi Buffon, who was the goalkeeper the day Moreno’s controversial decisions allowed World Cup co-host South Korea beat Italy in overtime.  “Joking aside, when sports people get involved in drug cases it means they’re scraping the bottom of the barrel.  It also means they’ve lost the real meaning of the sport, which is also to save kids from the street and various dangers, like drugs.”  [September 21]

Comment: An opportunity to run an excerpt from the “Referees” chapter in Soccer Stories, entitled “The Curious Officiating of Byron Moreno”:

          Soccer is the most international of games.  In what other sport could an Ecuadoran cause nationwide joy in South Korea and despair throughout Italy on a single day?

          Byron Moreno is the Ecuadoran, a referee whose questionable work during South Korea’s 2-1 victory over the favored Italians in Daejeon in the second round of the 2002 World Cup arguably altered the outcome of the tournament.

          The then-three time champions were ahead, 1-0, on a headed goal by striker Christian Vieri in the 18th minute and doing what they do best, protecting a slim lead.  The only bump in Italy’s road came back in the fourth minute when a debatable penalty kick was awarded to Korea, but goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon saved off the foot of striker Ahn Jung-Hwan.  In the 88th, however, Seol Ki-Hyeon slipped in, pounced on a misplay by defender Christian Panucci, and beat Buffon with a low shot to level the score.

           Thirteen minutes into overtime, it all began to unravel for Italy as playmaker Francesco Totti dived in the penalty area and was shown a second yellow card by Moreno for attempting to draw a penalty kick.

          The shorthanded Italians then had a seemingly valid goal by midfielder Damiano Tommasi nullified by Moreno for offside.  Given new life, the Koreans finally produced the winner three minutes from the end of extra time when Lee Young-Pyo floated a cross onto the head of Ahn, who nodded in the golden goal.

          More than a million Koreans flooded downtown Seoul in the biggest of the impromptu celebrations staged throughout a country where seemingly everyone was wearing a bright crimson “Be The Reds” T-shirt.  Many of the revelers linked the South Korean triumph of 2002 to the North Korea upset of Italy in the 1966 World Cup.

          In Italy, the reaction was quite different.

          “Shame!” and “Thieves” read the headlines in Italy’s leading sports dailies, La Gazzetta dello Sport and Corriere dello Sport, and Italian commentators suggested that Moreno was part of a plot by FIFA to prevent a fourth Italian world championship and/or to deliver South Korea, the tournament co-host, into the quarterfinals.  One Italian town named a row of toilets after Moreno.

          Italians were already in a snit over the officiating during their team’s earlier 2-1 loss to Croatia, a result that left Italy second to Mexico in its group.  A first-place finish would have pitted Italy against what was believed to be a soft touch, the United States, in the second round.

           “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup, where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen,” read a commentary in the normally reserved Corriere della Sport.

          FIFA, which selected Moreno to work the match, received approximately 400,000 e-mails from fans of Italy regarding the state of the officiating at the Korea-Italy game, causing the world soccer governing body’s server system to crash.  A FIFA spokesman described the e-mails as “virulent, some quite abusive, some of them very threatening, some of them quite disturbing.”

          Even FIFA president Sepp Blatter seemed to believe that Moreno and his brother referees had it out for the Azzurri.  “Unfortunately, through exceptional circumstances and coincidences, numerous and consecutive errors were concentrated on the Italian team,” he said.

          So the 32-year-old Moreno went home in disgrace.  He wasn’t quite done, however.

          That September, Moreno was still refereeing–and running for a seat on the Quito city council.  While working an Ecuadoran league match between Liga Quito and Barcelona of Guayaquil in Quito, he awarded a hotly disputed PK to each team, ejected two players, and disallowed a goal he originally OK’d.  The topper:  With 90 minutes gone, Barcelona was leading, 3-2, and Moreno signalled for six minutes of stoppage time.  Unfortunately for the visitors, Moreno extended stoppage time for a total of 13 minutes and Liga scored in the 99th and 101st minutes to pull out a 4-3 win.

           Exasperated by the performance of its supposed top referee–and by the perception that he was trying to capitalize on his exposure as a ref to win public office–the Ecuadoran soccer federation suspended Moreno for 20 games.

          Within weeks, FIFA began an investigation “as a result of a number of controversies regarding referee Byron Moreno in Japan, Italy, and South America over the past few months . . . .”  At the new year, he was dropped from FIFA’s list of international referees.

           In May 2003, three matches after his 20-game suspension ended, Moreno was at it again, ejecting three Deportivo Quito players during a league match at Deportivo Cuenca.  All three were sent off for being cautioned twice.  Quito somehow survived, holding Cuenca to a 1-1 draw.

          The Ecuadoran referees’ association finally had enough and booted Moreno out in 2004 when it was discovered that he was officiating regional tournaments without authorization.