Who could blame him?
Not for one second would I expect the reader to give more than a minute or two of thought to the US soccer team ahead of the fast approaching World Cup.
Their chances are in purgatory ever since they were landed in Group G with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, and although there was cautious optimism for a while, Jürgen Klinsmann put a spanner in the works last week by leaving Landon Donovan out of his 23-man squad. I’ve never been a huge fan of Donovan as a player but he’s certainly an interesting character and there’s no doubt that he is precisely the type of unknown quantity that could somehow unlock a Group of Death if there was even a glimmer of hope.
It would surprise you the type of American who gave up a midweek afternoon almost four years ago to watch the US pull off a miracle against Algeria to reach the knockout stages in South Africa.
Arguably, it was the most unifying moment in the growth of the game here since the 1994 World Cup — even though that was as much a house of cards as it was a long-term boost for soccer in the States.
It was a typical Donovan goal that did it, just the right balance of carefree energy and well-timed precision as he surged forward from just inside the halfway line to seize control of a loose ball, delivered a perfectly weighted pass through the channel before seizing on the deflected cross to fire a low drive through the net and on into the Indian Ocean!
The celebrations were a thing of wonder and for a fleeting few hours, soccer was the USA’s number one sport.
Since then, Donovan has gone off backpacking, taking a hiatus from his Major League Soccer career at LA Galaxy as well as his international obligations. He needed a bit of head space at the end of 2012 and came back refreshed in March of the following year.
Who could blame him? Maybe that casts a shadow and was a mitigating factor as Klinsmann made a case last week that four other forwards were “just a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas”.
As Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl wrote on Thursday, Klinsmann “never entrusted his full faith” in Donovan after his disastrous stint at Bayern Munich under the future US coach Klinsmann in 2009.
Donovan responded to this earth-shattering bookend to his international career in the best way imaginable, scoring two goals for the LA Galaxy on Sunday night and showing the American coach and the US soccer-loving public at large what they might end up missing in Brazil. The hope is that there isn’t some tacit red flag about Donovan’s mental fortitude in Klinsmann’s estimation but this speculation has certainly surfaced.
Donovan had spoken honestly about the mental strain of a career in sports and the difficulty of staying motivated before he headed off to south-east Asia to play a few five-a-sides while hanging about with the rest of the mortals also taking time out. He took an indefinite leave from the Galaxy and the national team just as the latter was embarking on its final round of qualifying for the World Cup.
“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable,” Donovan noted after his return. “We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it,’ and all this, and it’s a little peculiar to me, that whole idea, that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re okay with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not okay with letting them take the time they need to come back.”
Last week, there was a regrettable social media flurry when Klinsmann’s own son goaded the player after he had been left out of the squad. The twitter profile has been since deleted but it pointed to an underlying tension which might be separate from any notion that the player is a step or two behind others. No matter what the truth is, NPR soccer correspondent Stefan Fatsis spoke for many when he wrote: “Donovan wouldn’t have been a distraction in Brazil. Instead, Klinsmann has created controversy out of thin air, and risked alienating American fans in the process.”
And that’s the point. There’s little risk of the USA causing major problems for their higher-seeded opponents. Klinsmann enjoys a contract that runs through until the next World Cup so he has laid down a marker as they look past Brazil. Meanwhile, young aspiring soccer fans will be denied the chance of enjoying a unique talent appear on the greatest stage for the final time. That’s a pity.
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