Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


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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MARCH MADNESS, U.S. NATIONAL TEAM-STYLE

On the eve of the U.S. National Team’s World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica on March 22 in Denver and Mexico on March 26 in Mexico City, The Sporting News ran an article that has called into question USA coach Juergen Klinsmann’s ability to lead the team.

Coming off the USA’s lackluster loss at Honduras on February 6 in the opening game of the six-nation CONCACAF finals for Brasil ’14, TSN writer Brian Straus quoted numerous present and former U.S. internationals–anonymously–who questioned Klinsmann’s tactical acumen, communication skills and controversial personnel changes, including a reliance on German-born newcomers.

Citing the Honduras match, Straus wrote, “The performance that day, as well as a lack of obvious improvement during his 19 months in charge, has alarmed the American soccer community and unearthed considerable discontent.”  [March 21]

Comment:  Is this France ’98 all over again, when then-U.S. coach Steve Sampson lost his team and sailed it directly into the rocks?  Is Klinsmann the fellow who, with the highly regarded Joachim Lowe as his right-hand man, led Germany to a highly unlikely third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup?  Or is he the ex-genius who, with current U.S. assistant Martin Vasquez at his side, crashed and burned three years later as coach of the German giant known as FC Hollywood, Bayern Munich?

Much will be revealed over the next few days.  The USA goes into these two qualifiers without the soul-searching Landon Donovan, as well as injured goalkeeper Tim Howard and injured defenders Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.  The defense, whose biggest absentee is venerable right back Steve Cherundolo (knee surgery), could be the most inexperienced in recent memory.  The captain, meanwhile, will be attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey in place of center back Carlos Bocanegra, whose advanced age and lack of speed finally prompted Klinsmann to drop him from the roster altogether.

The day before the Costa Rica match, Klinsmann reminded the media of where he stood:  “If we do things exactly the same way, we are not improving.”  Indeed, and that’s what Klinsmann was hired not to do.  If he succeeds in “taking the players out of their comfort zone” (his mantra since assuming the U.S. helm) and gets results, this early hexagonal angst will have been worth it.  If he doesn’t, it will, among other things, reveal the suspicion that, no matter the coach, the U.S. player pool remains woefully thin–too thin to experiment with.