Donovan and Klinsmann saga nears its denouement

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.

14 comments about " Donovan and Klinsmann saga nears its denouement".
  1. Ian Plenderleith, May 21, 2014 at 9:36 a.m.

    Even if he doesn't play a major part on the field (and it's hard to see him doing that given his apparent loss of speed and willingness to run with the ball), perhaps his experience from three World Cups would warrant an unofficial advisory role to younger players. Provided, of course, he doesn't dwell too long on the 2006 tournament when, by his own admission, he couldn't really be bothered.

  2. Gus Keri, May 21, 2014 at 9:53 a.m.

    Donovan's problem is in his mind. In spite of his age, he can still contribute a lot to the team. Last year's Gold Cup was an example of what he can do if he puts his mind to it. Lack of motivation comes from getting saturated and having achieved every thing he could achieve. I feel sometime that Donovan is making these statements as an indirect way of asking Klinsmann to leave him out of the WC team and making it look like it came from the coach and not from him. Maybe, Donovan should give a call to Liverpool FC psychologist, DR Steve Peters, who helped Steven Gerrard and the rest of the team achieve the impossible this year.

  3. Wilson Cartagena, May 21, 2014 at 10:37 a.m.

    I can't believe Klinsmann would leave Donovan the best player the USMNT has had for the last 12 years. Yes, its true age catches up with everyone Mantle, Pele, Garrincha, Friedel to name just a few great players of all time. But Donovan still can contribute immensely in this his last World Cup. I think Klinsmann is being to tough and too strict with his players. I do admire his way of doing things with the team but he has to show some flexibility with his STAR player and give him more confidence and most of all TRUST HIM that he is the man to help the team advance through the group and go as far as they can in this tournament.

  4. Mark Hardt, May 21, 2014 at 10:45 a.m.

    Now Klinsman is really started to scare me. First he his totally contradicting himeself on Altidore. He talked about right now counting and right now Altidore is terrible. He has no business being on the team. He let Johnson for show boating even though he scored a goal against Mexico (that was unfairly called off). He is also coddling all those Germans because at least he understands Germans and of course they fight to the death in impossible situations of thier own making. If Altidore gets a free pass for a lousy season because of Gold Cup Performance than so should Donovan. If Klinsman brings Green to Brazil that will be the final straw of inconsistency. The only reason Green goes is he struck a deal with Klinsman to switch sides and Klinsi wants nothing more to have a Bayern Munich player on his team.

  5. Allan Lindh, May 21, 2014 at 11:59 a.m.

    "The sabbatical prompted outrage and disdain, and rightly so."
    Who in the h..l is some "commentator" calling out Landon Donovan for taking a little time off? Donovan is a player who since he was a kid has been balling the jack, mostly year round, for almost 15 years. And now "disdain" for needing a little time off??? It's a job. He needed a rest. He didn't get paid for the time off. "Disdain" from a reporter who has never spent one year of hard training, injuries, disappointments? Give me a break.

  6. Alex G. Sicre, May 21, 2014 at 1:59 p.m.

    One of the reasons I am waiting with baited breath for the World Cup to begin, is to see Landon Donovan play his probable last world cup. He is still one of the most exciting players to watch regardless of all the negative comments I have heard because of his age and loss of pace. He has more of a "Soccer Brain" than any other American player ever. He'll get up for the challenge like he has in world cups in the past. Klinsman is not that stupid that he would leave him off the team,I am sure.

  7. Giovanni Paolo, May 21, 2014 at 2:41 p.m.

    Arg, did you, Ridge Mahoney actually WATCH the goal that Eddie Johnson scored? His teammates DID NOT RUSH to embrace him! Actually one teammate did rush up to embrace him, and Eddie gave him a cold glare and they just shook hands quickly. All you have to do is to WATCH REPLAYS of this goal to understand the "cancer in the locker room" whispers about Eddie Johnson, which were almost certainly the real reasons he was excluded from even the initial 30-man call up.

  8. Giovanni Paolo, May 21, 2014 at 2:48 p.m.

    As for Donovan, yes he did great in the Gold Cup. After he had the long rest to let his body heal. But DID ANY OF YOU EVEN BOTHER TO WATCH THE LAST MEXICO GAME? Donovan had his lunch eaten by the Mexican players. He was probably one of the key reasons the US midfield all of a sudden lost its dominance in the second half. He looked slow and lost the ball whenever he tried to get past a Mexican player. He had zero quickness and was not a factor in that game.
    My prediction: Donovan is not going to make the last 23, and rightfully so. When a player gets old and slow, the decline can be sudden and rapid and irreversible, and it looks very much like Donovan has hit that wall and is not going to recover. Everybody needs to wake up and recognize that an aging player in decline simply cannot cut it in the fast paced World Cup, which is filled with the fastest, youngest and most skilled soccer players in the world, playing at their peak. Teams that fill their roster with aging and respected veterans invariably DO NOT MAKE IT out of the first round.

  9. Chris Morris, May 21, 2014 at 4:25 p.m.

    I would agree that if a team filled its roster with aging veterans, they would not make it out of the first round. But realistically every WC squad is going to include both youth and experience. The posters writing above are not arguing for the selection of an entire squad of veterans but for the inclusion of just one such, Donovan. History has shown that an aging veteran can wake up the echoes one last time (e.g., Zidane in 2006 when he was clearly the leading player in the tournament at age 33). However, history has also shown that if a coach thinks his iconic veteran player is no longer good enough to start, he may drop him entirely (e.g., Hoddle’s axing of Gascoigne in 1998), because it may be disruptive to have him on the bench, with his replacement on the field pressing as the fans/media clamor for the icon to be brought on.

  10. Bjorn Jacoby, May 21, 2014 at 5:22 p.m.

    @Mark Hardt, first of all it's Klinsmann not Klinsman. I admit it's difficult to argue about Altidore, but I believe he deserves to be among the top 30, but at the end of the day Klinsmann is going to take the best 23 players to Brazil based on their performance during this camp.
    On the German Americans on the team, what do you mean by "they fight to the death in impossible situations of their own making"? Are we talking soccer here?
    I am sick and tired of these ongoing discussions if they are American enough to represent the USMNT.
    Lastly, what affiliation does Klinsmann have with Bayern Munich? He grew up in a region that hates Munich, granted he played there and he was a coach. Bayern Munich is prospering due to the infrastructure he created, but still they regard him as a failure. I don't see that connection you are implying to.

  11. Kent James, May 21, 2014 at 10:45 p.m.

    Allan, I agree with your criticism of the "disdain" showed for Donovan's sabbatical; I think his sabbatical took guts and demonstrates one of the things I've always admired about Donovan, his self-awareness. I don't buy the idea that Donovan's "lost his fire", and that his claiming he has to make the team is a cry to be cut. I think it's the sign of a team player respecting the tone his head coach has set. I haven't seen Donovan play recently, so can't speak to his loss of speed, but even with a loss of speed, Donovan's game is so versatile he's always able to contribute. If Klinsmann does not take him, I think that's a mistake (he should go for his leadership and experience; he's shown nothing but class with the way JK has moved him in and out of the line-up). If he looks sharp in training (and I certainly hope he does), he should start.

  12. Ben Cassalia, May 22, 2014 at 9:22 a.m.

    Not only Donovan need to be on the team he needs to be in the starting 11 against Ghana. This isn't like last WC when the opponents got weaker as the group stage progressed. This year all three games are brutal and the outcome of the Ghana match could unfortunately determine whether or not the team reaches the knockout stage. That being the case, I'm going with LD.

  13. I w Nowozeniuk, May 22, 2014 at 7:46 p.m.

    Coach K is trying extra hard to get his players motivated; perhaps he's trying to salvage more than they can give. As for Ben's comment,...are u paying attention...LD has been in a spiral since last year and hasn't gotten back on his usual track...perhaps his decline is permanent, and u still want him on the NT. And the rest of u bloggers who think that coach K is out to crucify LD because of his sabbatical, simply delusional.

  14. Johnny Tran, July 7, 2014 at 10:35 a.m.

    I knew it all along that little mouth, bald head, will root against the team he played for three WC after the 1st comment he made with Bob Lee and minute later apologize on ESPN. This is disgraceful to the US soccer that the best soccer in the history of the game took thing personal and the low road. Here are things below that I have for this little mouth, bald head average player
    1. Sunil Gulati is an Indian and smart guy and I hope he would never ever insert this little mouth, bald head into any of the youth soccer program in the future. He already showed he took thing personal, and as a president who is at a management level all his life must have known that personal and leadership don’t go together. If you take thing personal then you cannot be a good leader, and this guy will be a disaster to the US youth soccer program. How can you root against the team you played for three WC?

    2. By the way, this little mouth, bald head is just an average player, he might be the best soccer player in the US historyl, but he is plainly average player compare to the rest of the world. If US don’t want to admit this reality then they can never ever win a WC. Looking at him against Marcelo for the friendly game with Brazil in which US lost 1-4, Marcelo made him look like a little boy, not even a boy against man. Watching the US against Belgium, if you know how to play soccer not just watching and pay great attention to the game, the technical level between Belgium and US players are very very far apart, looking at the way Belgian players blocking the ball between their legs and make Bradley fall to the ground like a little kid, you can tell US players technically incomparable to their counterparts. There are only two players that can match the technical level to the Belgian players are Yedlin, and Howard. Yedlin will have a bright future and end up playing in Europe some day and good luck to him.

    Fyi, little mouth, bald head, as a soccer player you should have known better that the game against Belgium did not get much to do with the tactical approach but rather the technical level is unmatchable between US players and Belgian players. So, shut your little mouth and live with some dignity rather than taking thing personal attacking Jurgen who brought so much to the US soccer program. Your comments when Bob Lee and Lalas asked you what need to be done after half time against Germany, and you said Wondoloski needs to be in there to support Dempsey, well this told me you don’t know anything tactically bc US played well up to that point, so how can you comment Jurgen did not set up for the team to be successful?

    By the way, Jurgen is so right dropping you because I don’t think you can do any good to help the team as an average player.

Next story loading loading..