By Ridge Mahoney
National team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann reminded everyone this week that Landon Donovan needs to play his way back onto the squad, and former U.S. coach Steve Sampson is confident that he will.
Sampson wasn’t surprised at Donovan finding the right tone in his comments on a very touchy subject.
“It was a risk and he knew it was a risk,” said Sampson of Donovan delaying his return well into the MLS season. “Everything that he’s saying is absolutely appropriate. He says he has to earn his way back on the national team. He’s saying all the right things. I think Jurgen would be crazy not to bring him back in at some point."
Sampson, the former Galaxy and U.S. head coach who like Klinsmann and Donovan lives in Southern California, wasn’t surprised by Donovan’s long hiatus from competitive play.
“I was not one of those who was shocked at all,” says Sampson, who coached Donovan and the Galaxy to the 2005 MLS Cup title but was dismissed midway through the 2006 season.
“If you look back at everything that Landon’s done the last four or five years -- playing for the Galaxy, playing for Everton in the offseason, playing for national teams, playing for Olympic teams, going to qualifiers, playing in the Confederations Cup -- I think it took its toll. I think he recognized that.”
Sampson works Galaxy games as a commentator for Time Warner Cable Deportes, which holds the rights for the team’s regional broadcasts, and in addition to coaching the USA also coached the Costa Rican national team for two years. He knows Donovan’s decision upended the sport on several fronts, and definitely complicated the life of the Galaxy and Coach Bruce Arena as well as the national team, yet was a shrewd move.
“His only chance of extending his career is to have taken a break and extended the break like he did,” says Sampson. “I can’t imagine that made Jurgen very happy and I certainly know that Bruce Arena wasn’t very happy about it, but he understood it. Landon had every right to make that decision for himself and for his own health, and I think it was the right decision. I really do.”
The U.S. all-time leading goalscorer with 49 celebrated his 31st birthday while on hiatus, and though his play for the Galaxy has steadily improved since he resumed competitive play earlier this month, Klinsmann’s comments this week reminded everyone of who’s running the show. “We see the chemistry of the team developing and we try to have a clear picture of every individual player, what he brings to the table,” Klinsmann said at a media workshop Wednesday in Arlington, Va.
“'Most of the time he was not part of that process. That was his choice, and I probably understand that, and it's no problem. But at the same time we're moving forward at our speed.”
Klinsmann said much the same thing about “moving forward” last year when Timothy Chandler’s wavering led to his exclusion under much different circumstances than that of Donovan. Chandler was welcomed back into the fold earlier this year when he confirmed his commitment to the USA, and started in a 2-1 loss at Honduras in which the American attack greatly suffered from Donovan’s absence.
“They didn’t roll up their sleeves and play to get the result,” said Sampson of a discouraging performance in San Pedro Sula. “They were trying to implement a style of soccer that Jurgen’s wanted to play since he came to the team. But sometimes you just have to play ugly and get a result, especially in conditions that exist in so many different countries in Concacaf.”
Sampson credits Klinsmann and the players for getting a blizzard-lashed victory in Denver over Costa Rica and 0-0 tie in Mexico City -- a result attained only once before by a U.S. team in a competitive match, under Sampson’s direction in 1997 -- yet feels that Donovan is a vital clog in Klinsmann’s renovation of the team’s style and personality as it labors through the Hexagonal.
“The U.S. national team needs the likes of Landon when he’s playing at his best,” says Sampson, bluntly. “We’re hoping that Landon will find that form again, because there’s only one person on that U.S. national team right now you can count on to score goals consistently, and that’s Clint Dempsey. The only other player who has that ability when he’s in form is Landon Donovan.
“I think the time that Jurgen was hired by U.S. Soccer it lost at least a year to implement his style and the kinds of changes he wanted to make. He began to bring in different types of players who maybe brought a little bit more of a Latin flair, a play-to-feet type of player, and to play a more sophisticated style that I believe will really pay dividends eventually at a World Cup. But it takes time.”
Donovan has time, perhaps a month, to convince Klinsmann he should be summoned for the Hexagonal matches in June against Panama, Jamaica, and Honduras. In a postgame interview following the Galaxy’s 2-0 defeat of Sporting Kansas City Saturday, Donovan spoke respectfully about proving to Klinsmann that he should be recalled. He seemed at peace with his present status and confident about his future.
“Anyone who knows Landon knows that he needs balance in his life, and once that balance is lost, he’s very ineffective as a player," says Sampson. "But when he finds balance and has balance, he’s really something.”