Monday, June 02, 2014
I assumed Memorial Day weekend would be the usual mix of tournament games, lunches out and sunburns. We weren’t disappointed on any front. One grandson’s team won the consolation bracket and the other lost in the semis of the winner’s bracket. We ate wings, steaks, sub sandwiches, pizza, and drank a fair amount of Starbucks — the tournament parents’ elixir. Overall, it was a satisfying competition. However, something happened that dominated the soccer news. The U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the World Cup was announced, and Landon Donovan was left off. The pundits went wild. Donovan was hoping to play in his fourth World Cup, the first American male player to do so. American woman Kristine Lilly has played in five, and Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm have each played in four. At 32, Donovan could still possibly make the 2018 roster, but it would be highly unlikely. His World Cup dreams ended last Thursday, barring an injury to a rostered player.
Why is this story so significant? There are several reasons. The U.S. has an extremely difficult group from which it will probably not emerge. The team has new leadership in Jurgen Klinsmann. Donovan has been a proven goal-scorer and assist-maker. He is well-liked and respected by fellow players. He has a strong work ethic. Finally, he is a symbol of U.S. Men’s soccer to hundreds of thousands of fans.
The U.S. World Cup group, nicknamed “The Death Group,” includes Portugal, Ghana and Germany. Only two teams advance, and on the basis of experience, skill and history, the U.S. is the least likely to move on. Germany has been in the finals seven times and has won three times. In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Ghana was in the Round of 16 and the Quarterfinals, respectively. In a mirror-image of Ghana, Portugal made the Quarterfinals in 2006 and the Round of 16 in 2010. The U.S. team made the Round of 16 in 2010, finishing 12th, behind Portugal (11th), Ghana (seventh) and Germany (third). Our national team is definitely the underdog in group play. Therefore, reporters and fans argue that the team needs the steadying influence that Donovan can bring to the competition. Forwards Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are both weathered players in the international scene, but Altidore is well-known to be inconsistent. Donovan could provide some stability even from the bench, an intangible benefit of having him on the roster. Like Dempsey, Donovan can play several positions, giving the team flexibility should it face injuries during the World Cup. Since only two teams can advance from the group, the U.S. needs to have at minimum a win and a strong goal differential. Donovan could be the player who delivers what is needed, as he has in past competitions.
Bob Bradley had been the national team coach, who was well-respected by his players. When he was replaced in late July 2011 by the German, Jurgen Klinsmann, there was some immediate suspicion from veteran players. Landon Donovan didn’t completely mesh with Klinsmann, a situation only made worse by Donovan taking a four month sabbatical from soccer in 2012 — after his club team, the LA Galaxy, won the MLS Championship and just prior to the national team entering the final qualifying rounds for the World Cup. Klinsmann found Donovan’s reasons, “exhaustion and mental stress,” ridiculous and a show of weakness. He’s always felt that Landon was soft on the field, which stems from his days coaching him at Bayern Munich in 2009. The sabbatical indicated to Klinsmann that Donovan lacked commitment, a word that the German believes is the most important factor in soccer. Needing to take the reins firmly when it comes to the World Cup, Klinsmann probably saw Donovan is an antagonist to his leadership despite the player’s continual support of the coach’s vision. Sarcastically, Bruce Arena, a former national team coach said, “If there are 23 players better than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.” Ironically, Klinsmann invited Donovan to rejoin the team after his sabbatical and just in time for two significant qualifying games against Costa Rica and Mexico. In the must-win Mexico game, his corner kick assist on Eddie Johnson’s header and his goal against Mexico helped insure the U.S. World Cup qualification despite a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica.
That performance was only one of the many clutch performances Donovan has delivered. In addition, his five World Cup goals are equal to the World Cup goals scored by Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie combined. In fact, Donovan has scored more World Cup goals than any other CONCACAF player. He scored the game-winning goal in injury time for a key win against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup. He is the first MLS player to reach both 50 goals and 50 assists. He has more goals than any other national team player in history and passed Cobi Jones’ assist record. He has the most caps (international games) of all active national team players. Of his five World Cup goals, three came in the last World Cup. This pedigree might have been enough to earn him a spot on the roster, but Klinsmann passed over other previous World Cup veterans, choosing instead to go with a younger squad, perhaps thinking about 2018. The choice to drop those players could be easily defended, but Donovan’s snub is more problematic. Nevertheless, Klinsmann argued that the players he selected were just a “bit better” than Donovan, never specifying what those attributes were.
The intangibles Donovan brings to the game can’t be discounted. He has the respect of his peers, so he has the ability to encourage them to a win even when in a hole. The U.S. may well need to come from behind in several World Cup games, so we’ll need the calming influence of player who has not only been there but overcome that. Donovan, through his dangerous scoring reputation, has the ability to pull defenders to him while leaving other players open to score. Just being on the field could be an important factor in the U.S. getting out of group play. Klinsmann may have felt that the gravity Donovan brings to the pitch wasn’t sufficient to overcome any weakness in play that Klinsmann saw at camp. Or the coach may have completely discounted the intangibles. There is one more factor that Donovan brings to the table — fans. He is arguably the best known national team player, especially for young fans. That monetary team support comes with the purchase of official gear and mementoes and in viewership that ups ad revenue in which the team shares. There probably won’t be much reduction in fans watching since it is the World Cup after all, but there may be a decrease in the purchase of gear unless the team creates a new hero. Donovan also knows the ins and outs of all the teams in our group. He’s played with or against most of the primary players, as have Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, DeMarcus Beasley and Michael Bradley. Having extra experience on the pitch can only augment what those latter players bring. Donovan has been a complementary player to these teammates for years, so he knows their style of play, where they will be off the ball, and where he should be to maximize their talents. Together, they understand how to move around their opponents.
Despite how his sabbatical may contradict this, he has a strong work ethic. Actually his intensity to train and be the best he can be on the field probably led to the need for a break. He admits he’s not as young as many of the players brought into the pool, so he may not be perfect day after day of training, but he’ll keep at it and always keep improving. He has great fitness and the willingness to work on that fitness daily. Additionally, he encourages other players to up their fitness and skills both through example and actual prompting. He has started in literally hundreds of games and has played professional soccer since age 17, as well as his national team appearances. He regularly plays 70 to 90 minutes a game, and will stay in the game through overtimes. On top of his playing schedule, he participates in dozens of personal appearances and camps promoting the game to young players and fans. He has done interviews after miserable losses with dignity and poise. He has been the public face of the national team for over a decade.
I am guessing less than a day after he was left off the roster he was preliminarily signed by ESPN as a commentator. He speaks Spanish, so he could even be an analyst for Univision. Since playing on the national team provides no income, Donovan will definitely benefit financially should he go the broadcast route. Still, I think if you asked him whether he’d rather make money or play in the World Cup, he wouldn’t even hesitate to answer World Cup play. While no one wishes an injury on any player, Donovan would be happy to step in should that unfortunate event occur. He’ll be in Brazil as a player, a fan, or a broadcaster, but he’d much rather be a player.
What lesson does this hold for young soccer players? Nothing is for sure. No matter how good you may be or think you may be, coaches, scouts and referees have their own perspectives. Your abilities could be top-notch but not fit into the tactical plan a coach has or the hole a scout needs to fill on a college or pro team. When our kids don’t make the team they really wanted or sit on the bench, it may have less to do with their skills than with a bigger picture that doesn’t include them. One way to offset that possibility is to make themselves as versatile a player as they can. Robbie is a forward who has played midfield and even defense when the team needed it. Bryce is a goalkeeper who has played forward, and scored a fair share of goals when the coach called on him. Kids who can be slotted into several positions end up having more playing time and more security when it comes to tryouts. It’s fun to be the starring goal scorer, but if the team is occasionally lacking a strong center midfielder to distribute the ball to a striker, the coach may opt for a player who can fill both roles. Teams need to have flexibility, so players need to work on adaptability. Donovan was a versatile player, but he also needed to have the respect and trust of the coach. Parents can encourage our children to listen to the coach, not be contentious, and be supportive of other players and the coach’s vision. Likewise, parents should not be confrontational with the coach. If we feel our kids are being overlooked for their talents, then we should consider a team switch. An entire team and/or club has no obligation to change to accommodate our child. We may not agree that our kids should be snubbed, just as thousands of fans and pundits don’t agree that Donovan should have been snubbed. However, the reality is that the coach and the team management have the right to make choices that seem odd, unreasonable and even stupid, that we have to accept. That’s a tough lesson, but learning it helps our kids navigate through lots of life’s twists and turns. The one sure thing is that nothing is certain.