Landon Donovan’s stunning exclusion from the U.S. World cup squad has nothing to do with soccer.
It’s about power and control.
To assert his dominance over the squad, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann needed to get rid of the most influential, the most creative, the most talented player the U.S. has ever seen. So he did.
Read between the lines in the various reports summarizing the relationship between Donovan and Klinsmann and it’s clear it was not healthy.
Klinsmann wasn’t impressed by the central figure in his team thumbing his nose at the sport, the national team and the American soccer establishment by taking a sabbatical Donovan had described as necessary for his mental health.
He was unimpressed with the contained, reserved Donovan he believed failed to visibly display the fire the sideline-cheering Klinsmann wanted to see.
And Klinsmann wanted his own man captaining the team, not a holdover from previous incarnations.
That’s why the likes of Timmy Chandler, despite his apparent reticence to cast his lot with the U.S. national team, was cajoled to return to its ranks.
And that’s why Donovan, despite maintaining his role as a pivotal figure on the team upon his return, had to produce blinding displays (see above) to demonstrate his worth to a coach clearly looking for reasons to cut him.
This was a political decision, not a sporting one. And Klinsmann knows it.
Which is why he doesn’t speak directly to the media, but instead has a canned statement distributed to various outlets laying out the supposed weak rationale that other players were ahead of Donovan in unspecified ways.
Klinsmann recently said he didn’t consider Donovan a midfielder, but a forward.
Which is a handy way of providing a justifiable backdrop to his decision. Thirty-something forwards are not exactly in the prime of their international careers, while midfielders still can be.
This kind of political maneuvering is one reason Donovan needed a break from the national team. And why he may not return even if Klinsmann asks because of injury issues to players who were picked to go to Brazil. And why Donovan may well be so sick of the entire thing I wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk away from the sport and hang up his cleats at the end of the season.
The U.S. chances of progressing beyond the group stage in Brazil was already a long shot with him in the team. Now that opportunity seems even less likely.
Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer may well know that and have an eye on 2018 so this tournament can provide experience for younger players who unlike Donovan will be around four years from now.
But they underestimate public opinion and expectations at their peril.
The American public hasn’t given up on the U.S. Nor have they given up on Donovan.
As for Klinsmann, he had better see progress both in results and the quality of the product on the field.
Because he hasn’t yet earned the right to see some slack cut for himself.
And without measurable, perceptible improvement, American soccer fans may well give up quickly on him and everything U.S. Soccer officials believed they could achieve with a coach who may know the sport, but doesn’t comprehend the respect or loyalty a figure like Donovan should command.
His soon to be aborted American adventure with the Galaxy makes three.
The first came in 1998, when a petulant Beckham threw away England’s best chance of winning the World Cup since its lone triumph in 1966, getting himself sent off with a childish, retaliatory foul in the second round against Argentina.
The second came in 2003 when Manchester United Manager Alex Ferguson showed him the door at the world’s biggest club, concerned his growing fame and celebrity was undermining the team.
And now Beckham has failed in MLS, playing no small role in transforming what was the league’s flagship franchise into its worst. A player who was supposed to bring star power and credibility to MLS instead merely exposed the inherent weaknesses of a league with a relatively low salary cap and small squads.
In the end, Beckham proved he’s no Pele or even a Juan Pablo Angel.
Beckham is a simple, uncomplicated chap. What you see is what you get.
I have no doubt that when he originally left on loan for AC Milan it was, as he said, to keep fit at his relatively advanced age of 33 during what is by soccer standards a long off-season.
In Milan, he was allowed to do what he could not in MLS; play a specific role that emphasized his strengths rather than expose his increasing fragility, surrounded by players as good or better than him.
Beckham has said he was surprised by how much he enjoyed playing for Milan. The bigger surprise is that he was surprised by that.
It became clear last season, playing for an abysmal team surrounded by average players, that Beckham was both increasingly frustrated and disinterested.
Some players are capable of making a team better, hauling less talented teammates up to their level, inspiring them and setting an example.
Beckham is not that kind of player.
At the Galaxy, it became clear with virtually every pass, every cross and every free kick Beckham made that he needed a competent and accomplished supporting cast. That safety net simply did not exist.
Beckham is a role player with a knack for sublime free kicks and long, accurate passes perhaps no other player in the world can duplicate.
But when Beckham continually sends in crosses teammates are unable to finish or make passes less talented players are incapable of reading, the predictable result is a disenchanted, dissatisfied player.
Beckham’s inaugural, injury-plagued season was little more than joke – some might use the word scam – that saw him make just two MLS starts, despite drawing huge crowds wherever he didn’t appear.
Last season was in some respects even worse, his mediocre output of five goals and 10 assists in 25 MLS starts serving largely to underline his, and the team’s, lack of achievements.
The often maligned Landon Donovan proved last year that even on a horrific team a talented player can have the best season of his career, especially if he’s motivated by the prospect of a lucrative move abroad.
Donovan deserves a move to Bayern Munich and the U.S. National Team is likely to benefit from a player turning out for one of the world’s best teams in one of this planet’s best leagues.
Beckham had no such motivation.
Commercially, he had already enriched himself and Galaxy owners Anschutz Entertainment Group merely by signing on the dotted line of his $6.5 million a year contract and adding even more lucrative commercial endorsements along the way in the world’s largest economy.
MLS may be a second-rate league – as is every other in the world outside of England, Italy, Germany and Spain – but it is incredibly demanding.
On the field, MLS is a physical, tough slog full of young, strapping athletes if not overly-talented players. Off it, there are thousands of miles of air travel and frequent time zone shifts capable of sapping the stamina of all but the most focused players.
Beckham, it’s clear, was never focused. Worse, he underestimated the demands of MLS. Beckham has more in common with failures like Lothar Matthaus than successes such as Darren Huckerby.
There are 45 days until the season begins.
Replacing players of the stature of Beckham and Donovan will not be easy in that short time frame. But it does give Coach Bruce Arena considerable latitude under the salary cap to find a talented playmaker capable of putting his mark on the team in a way Beckham never did.
Beckham has failed – again, again and again – when it mattered most.
His time has gone. It’s time for the Galaxy and American soccer to move on.
Because the only thing worse than failing is not owning up to a mistake.
And Beckham has proved a colossal mistake.