[MLS CONFIDENTIAL] Two players, vital to their club and country, both saddled with injuries and obligations and complications. The cases of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane illustrate the byzantine and unique ways international play can affect MLS, as well as the diplomatic dances occasionally required of players and their club coaches. Both are expected to be on the field Sunday to face Houston in MLS Cup, which will culminate several weeks of intrigue.
Donovan elected to skip a U.S. friendly last week against France to rest up for MLS Cup; Keane played and scored twice as Ireland romped to a 4-0 rout of Estonia in the first leg of its two-game European Championship playoff. In both cases, the more pressing need took priority, and even though Ireland’s second leg against Estonia Tuesday is little more than a formality, Keane will be on hand.
In a media teleconference call Monday, Arena admitted he broached the possibility of Ireland releasing Keane prior to the second leg to give him more preparation time for MLS Cup, but accepted the decision he stay with Ireland.
“I had contact with [Ireland coach Giovanni] Trapattoni and I think Robbie needs to be there for Ireland,” said Arena. “He’s the captain of the team. They’ve not yet qualified for the European Championships and Robbie will be there. We’re hopeful his minutes will be limited.”
And in any case, would a player as Irish and competitive as Keane want to miss a celebratory match in Dublin, the city of his birth? As captain and Ireland’s all-time leading scorer, Keane simply can’t turn down his country. All Arena can do is anxiously await his plane to land in LA and hope that a fit Keane comes bounding down the jetway. An adductor injury in October hampered him but he's started each of the Galaxy's three playoff games.
"He’s going to get the rest he needs,” said Arena of Keane’s schedule once he does return. “Robbie’s the kind of guy who could probably get off the plane and play. That’s the way he is. We’re going certainly to give him a couple of easy days and have him ready for Sunday.”
How ready Donovan will be for Sunday is uncertain. He’s been bothered by a bad ankle, and late in the season picked up a quadriceps strain that has hobbled him further. He’s played competently but cautiously in the playoffs. When the U.S. squad to play France and Slovenia was announced, a provision that players involved with MLS Cup would be sent back to their clubs after the France game was included.
Soon therafter came word from Donovan he had declined the call-up to rest and recharge. In this case, Arena says he didn’t discuss the issue with U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and let Donovan make the call. While his decision to stay in L.A. surprised some fans and observers, it’s the logical choice: a friendly, even in the stadium where France won its first World Cup in 1998, just doesn’t equate to the fatigue and travel and risk of further injury that could impair his performance in the championship game.
“I don’t know the content of their conversation and how that went and all that,” said Arena. “In all honesty, Landon did need a break. Landon has over the last couple of months had an assortment of injuries, and then he was overloaded with the three games in eight days and wasn’t really prepared to be traveling overseas to play in that game.
“In his best interests and our best interests, Landon did need to stay home and I’m happy it worked out, but I understand the issues that the national-team coach has as well as the players, and let them work it out themselves.”
During his eight years (1998-2006) as U.S. coach, Arena played the politics of building and nurturing relationships with the clubs employing his national-team players. Since taking over the Galaxy job in 2008, he’s had to weigh the needs of nearly a dozen national teams, and just the comings and goings of David Beckham to represent England – and negotiate his own loan to AC Milan -- would exasperate most coaches. Arena, though, has been on both sides.
The tug-of-war regarding players is supposed to be resolved by the institution by FIFA of international match dates and time windows for releasing them, but in reality there’s always the chance of friction, particularly when a team like the USA is using those dates for friendlies rather than competitive matches.
The most important competitive match of the league season required Donovan to turn down a national-team friendly. A fully healthy Donovan might have done both, but at this point in the season, no player is fully healthy, and few players get as banged up as he does.
When informed of Donovan’s decision, Klinsmann said he “respected” it. With the national team mired in a scoring slump – it has scored two goals in Klinsmann’s six games counting the 1-0 loss to France – Klinsmann needs all of his attacking elements. But he also needs education regarding MLS.
Shortly after taking the job, Klinsmann admitted he didn’t know enough about the league or its players. Now he also knows a lot more about all the rest of it.