Festive Footy Advent: Day 3 of 24 – He Did it His Way

Football’s relationship with the USA is an interesting one. Considered the most popular sport in the World, the Beautiful Game, the World’s Game, the United States have been notoriously less enthused about it than some.

Having lived here, I’ve seen the gradual shift away from that mindset. And by the way, make no mistake about the mindset we’re speaking about.

I know plenty of British people who don’t much care for the NFL, or Basketball, or Ice Hockey. Generally, those that don’t care for these games tend to deal with the scenario by simply neither watching them nor giving them too much thought. My assumption was that football was held in a similar light in the US. I assumed wrong.

I have actually been shocked by the angle taken by those that truly don’t like soccer. We’re talking flat out hatred. I’ve heard everything from “It’s boring and it sucks” to “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay”. Lamentations over a lack of goals, tied games, injury time, diving, even training vests have all abounded.

Fortunately, as I said, it is a mentality that has changed. The game is now relatively well respected, has plenty of fans and even those that aren’t keen tend to be more indifferent than incensed.

The reason I start with this waffling about the state of footy’s popularity in America is firstly, because this blog is about one of the USA’s most prominent soccer figures (if not the most) and secondly, I start all my blogs this way.

I am of course, referring to a man who (for at least one more week) is arguably the greatest American outfield player to have played the game. There’s a joke about Giuseppe Rossi here somewhere, but it isn’t forthcoming right now.

I of course mean the one and only, Landon Timothy Donovan.

A guy who has united a nation with his play and divided opinion with pretty much everything else.

Once branded a whiney prima dona (something he has actually partially acknowledged being in his youth) he’s been braver than many give him credit for.

His career trajectory is known chapter-and-verse by most American fans. He started in the Bayer Leverkusen youth system. Feeling homesick and frustrated, he returned to California on a multi-year loan to the San Jose Earthquakes. The change of scenery and perhaps the change of competition allowed him to thrive. In four seasons, he helped the Quakes to two MLS championships, becoming a key figure and crowd favourite. A standout at the 2002 World Cup, notably scoring against CONCACAF rivals Mexico signalling the birth of Dos A Cero (a series of 2-0 victories for US in the rivalry), things were looking up.

After the 2004 season, he left the Quakes for good and returned for another crack at making it with Leverkusen. Frustratingly, it never came to fruition. After struggling for a few months, LD returned to MLS. Breaking Smurf hearts and igniting all manner of conspiracy theories, he returned not to San Jose who had lost their rights to him in a trade for Ricardo Clark, but to their arch rivals, the Los Angeles Galaxy. Promptly, the Galaxy won the following MLS Cup and AEG soon moved the Earthquakes (leaving behind the name and history so the franchise could be resurrected at a later date) to Houston to become the Dynamo.

It’s here that things got a little dicey for Los Angeles.  Failing to qualify for the first time in their history in 2006, they wouldn’t see the post season again until 2009.  In the midst of all this, David Beckham comes to town, gets Donovan’s captaincy, Terry Byrnes gets a job and replaces Frank Yallop with Ruud Gullit.  Bad blood gradually emerges between Donovan and Beckham, coming to a head when Grant Wahl releases “The Beckham Experiment”.  Packed full of criticism of the former England captain, with notable contributions from Landon himself, things get ugly.

The less said about Alvaro Pires, the better (shudder).

Despite LA’s struggles, Donovan still holds up his end of the bargain, scoring and assisting for fun.  Despite the US team underwhelming at World Cup 2006, back in CONCACAF things are going well with Gold Cups in ’05 and ’07.

Meanwhile the Galaxy faithful are turning on Becks over his extended loan with Milan (and attempted permanent move).  Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas are replaced by Bruce Arena and things suddenly change for he better.  Not one for messing about, Arena does what many higher profile managers might fail to do and tells Beckham and Donovan to work out their differences, a demand with which both men comply.

The rest is history as LA Galaxy reach the ’09 MLS Cup Final, win the Supporters Shield back-to-back in ’10 and ’11, winning consecutive MLS Cups in ’11 and ’12, with one ill-fated loan to Bayern Munich and two stellar loans to Everton thrown in for good measure.  Donovan is inevitably a key figure throughout, scoring in both finals.  Not to mention being the clutch guy once more for the USA, getting the team to an unlikely Confederations Cup final in ’09, and scoring vital goals at World Cup 2010.

2012 is when things take a darker turn and this brings me back to my suggestion that Landon Donovan is a braver man than he’s often given credit for.  This was of course, the year of the hiatus.

Donovan had stated in an interview a short while before this, that he no longer enjoyed the game as he once did.  He was feeling burnt out.  He was already thinking of life beyond soccer.

Between the 2011 and 2012 season, Donovan announced that he would be taking a short break to examine his life and decide what he wanted to do.  Bruce Arena didn’t seem especially happy but agreed to give Landon the time.  Klinsmann seemed equally disgruntled.

Donovan has frequently faced accusations of “mental weakness”.  Many haven’t forgiven him for never having an extended, sustained spell of success in bigger leagues.  Going back to his Leverkusen days, his failure there has been harshly described as “Landycakes” not being able to handle being away from his Mom’s cooking and actress girlfriend.

Many hold the opinion that had he forced the issue and succeeded abroad, he would have been an even better player.

I hold the opinion that such views are presumptuous and shortsighted.

When I think of LD’s documented struggles in Germany, I’m reminded of Sonny Pike.  People of my generation may remember him as the seven year old English kid who was signed by Ajax in the eighties.  He of course, never made it.  Not at Ajax, not as a footballer.  The pressure of being a child-prodigy playing abroad was too much.  It took it’s toll psychologically.  To this day, the man himself laments his handling, stating that his club only seemed to care when he was a useful prospect.

After his his hiatus, Donovan responded to criticism by questioning the attitudes to mental health versus physical injury.  Nobody aside form that New York crowd who got uspet over Beckham not appearing at Giants Stadium, ever questions a player being out with an injury.  Plenty of us questioned Donovan taking time off for what now seems to have been a clear case of depression.

Given that fact, I think it’s quite arguable that leaving Leverkusen was the best thing for Donovan’s career.  Ditto sitting tight in MLS unless the right offer came along.

Yet accusations of “mental weakness” ring hollow when held up against his performances for his country.  There he was frequently a difference maker.  A holder of countless national team, club and MLS records, this is a man who routinely took his teams on his back.  Indeed, he has been the prevalent face of the very sport in his homeland.

This is why I have long been critical of Klinsmann’s handling of the situation.  Upon his return, he was asked to jump through hoops to prove his worth to a national team he had led for the bulk of his career.

It’s easy to forget now that the Gold Cup he dominated and won in 2013, featured a second-string USA.  When he once again scored against Mexico to seal USA’s 2014 World Cup place, in another stellar performance, the general assumption was that he was back and would be on the plane to Brazil.

Notoriously, Klinsmann had other ideas. He was of course omitted from the final squad.  It made no sense.  Suggestions were made about form, when Jozy Altidore was included despite flaming out in the Premiership.  Suggestions were made about the ease of playing in MLS, while Chris Wondolowski was there.  Suggestions and assumptions were made about commitment, attitude and that hiatus.  Timothy Chandler, who had repeatedly turned down competitive US call-ups throughout qualifying, made the trip.

Donovan handled it with class and dignity.  He had been punished for ultimately being honest, not putting his sport on a pantheon and doing what was right for him.

Since that day, it has felt like 2014 has been about proving a point.  Donovan soon announced his retirement.  Bruce Arena gave the most telling testimony to the issues that Landon has faced when his usual stern facade broke during an interview.  Out of nowhere, as Arena talked about Donovan’s career, he burst in to tears.  Most poignant was the phrase “Now he can be happy again”.

The change has been noticable.  No sooner did that rejection occur and that retirement get announced, than Donovan started playing seemingly without fear.  Goals, assists, everything we associated with him, back in spades for one final, farewell tour that sees him in one more MLS Cup Final.

Landon Donovan: a man who wear his heart on his sleeve, speaks honestly and openly, plays for all he’s worth and had the guts to follow a career path that was right for him.

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