By Ridge Mahoney
In his appearance with the media Monday at the U.S. training camp in Northern California, Landon Donovan said there wasn’t any friction between him and national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
There may not be friction, but there are differences of personality and philosophy, as is usually the case in such settings. Players and coaches don’t need to see eye-to-eye on everything, they just need to buy into each other enough to maximize the chances of success. Whether Donovan and Klinsmann get that opportunity next month in Brazil is not yet settled.
As befits any head coach, Klinsmann is being very selective of which behavior he tolerates, and which he does not. The exclusion of Eddie Johnson, which is somewhat difficult to explain on the basis of his play, makes more sense in light of his “pay me” gesture last year while playing for Seattle, and critical comments regarding his D.C. United teammates earlier this season. In addition to technical prowess, Klinsmann has placed a high priority on psychological strength, and not every player is suited to the scrutiny and pressure of a long preparation camp and the World Cup whirlwind that follows.
Though Klinsmann has softened somewhat his mantra that his players should always seek out tougher challenges, the decision by Clint Dempsey to leave Europe for MLS last summer and Michael Bradley’s move four months ago don’t appear to have harmed their chances at a spot on the World Cup squad of 23.
United teammates joyously embraced Johnson last Saturday when he scored his first goal of the season for D.C. in the first game after U.S. Soccer announced the Johnson-less camp roster. During a long MLS season, there will be high points and low moments, periods of bliss interspersed with those of crisis, and a team needs collective resilience to endure the peaks and valleys. United has already won more games than the pathetic three it did last year and though Johnson didn’t score until the team’s 10th game of the season there have been enough intervals of good play
One can make the case that at the international level, Johnson lacks the skills to play wide in midfield, and is rather limited as a forward. With Donovan, age and injury have reduced his effectiveness, but can Klinsmann really believe he doesn’t have enough game left to contribute in a fourth World Cup? Is a troublesome knee too much for him to overcome going to a brutal World Cup group? Or is this saga more about mindset and motivation?
Donovan took a radical course in the winter between the 2012 and 2013 MLS seasons, declaring himself on sabbatical, time of return to be decided. He was ready to come back the following April, after the first three of 10 Hexagonal qualifiers, yet Klinsmann made him wait through three more games -- the qualifiers played last June -- before recalling him to play in the Gold Cup, during which he excelled.
But that Donovan has seldom resurfaced in 2014 either for the Galaxy or the USA, so theoretically there could be some justification for Klinsmann ensconcing him, at least publicly, in a bubble of uncertainty. But there’s more in play here.
Several times before he took the U.S. job in 2011, Klinsmann criticized Donovan’s toughness and commitment, and now that there are physical issues as well and Donovan can’t tear it up as he once did, the coach is reminding everyone that his decisions are based on today and tomorrow, not yesterday nor yesteryear.
Donovan said he didn’t consider himself a lock for the World Cup squad of 23, to which there has been some incredulous reaction from fans and the press. But what else can he say? Klinsmann has repeatedly asserted that no one is assured of a spot, and even if that’s absurd in the cases of at least a dozen players, none of them are publicly proclaiming they will be on the plane to Brazil.
The disturbing element of Donovan’s behavior is a perceived acceptance of a backup role, or missing the competition altogether. If Klinsmann believes Donovan’s competitive fire has gone out or is at least flickering, the possibility of exclusion grows significantly. Rather than thinking Donovan is merely trotting out the company line, Klinsmann may see a player no longer hungry enough to trust.
Yet throughout his career Donovan has adamantly refused to praise himself, which is one of many reasons his teammates regard him so highly. He’s spoken honestly at times about the wear and tear of juggling club and country commitments, which is interpreted by some observers as whining. The sabbatical prompted outrage and disdain, and rightly so.
Through his comments and selective callups of Donovan, Klinsmann is walking a fine line. He can certainly use whatever methods he chooses to motivate a 32-year-old who is not what he once was. But Donovan commands great respect from his veteran teammates, who may not agree with everything he does but certainly accept his choices as personal decisions. If they regard Klinsmann’s handling of Donovan a procession of mind games, the coach will have more to deal with than just one tough situation.
His teammates may have more belief in Donovan than does the coach. Such a scenario might force Klinsmann to make the toughest decision of his U.S. tenure, for not only would he exclude the USA’s all-time goals and assists leader, he would have to name someone in his place with paltry credentials in comparison. That would be a mistake.