Another soccer post. Give in to your anger, soccer h8terz. Let the hate flow through you.
If you don’t really care one way or another, bear with me. Or bare with me if your grasp on language is a little loose or you’re into that sort of thing.
Landon Donovan is the leading scorer in US soccer World Cup history. He has scored more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo and Leonel Messi. If you know much about soccer, you know that that’s a big deal.
Donovan is 32 years old, not in his prime but still has a lot of gas in the tank, but was left off the US roster for this year’s World Cup. He isn’t shy and does have an arrogant streak. He is a player who already has a coach’s view of the game. He’s also probably the best that the United States has ever produced. So he has some credibility. I’ve seen him play in person once. He’s exceptional. He knows what he’s talking about, as long as he’s talking about soccer.
After the US crashed out by losing to Belgium, Donovan gave up some quotes that Yahoo! Sports is describing as a “bitter slam” on coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“I think we’re all disappointed in what happened yesterday, Donovan told MLS Soccer on Wednesday. “I think the most disappointing is we didn’t seem like we gave it a real effort, from a tactical standpoint. I thought the guys did everything they could, they did everything that was asked of them, but I don’t think we were set up to succeed yesterday, and that was tough to watch.”
Cut from the World Cup squad in late May in a surprise move that prevented him from playing in his fourth World Cup, Donovan has never been one to mince words, but his detailed assault on the U.S. World Cup team’s flaws, and Klinsmann’s role in the developing of those flaws, was still pretty shocking.
“If you really look at the performances, there were some good performances by guys, some not-so-good performances by guys. As a whole, I think tactically, the team was not set up to succeed,” Donovan said. “They were set up in a way that was opposite from what they’ve been the past couple years, which is opening up, passing, attacking — trying to do that. And the team’s been successful that way. Why they decided to switch that in the World Cup, none of us will know.”
Donovan pointed specifically to how Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, the U.S. team’s two best field players, were used at the World Cup.
“Michael was put in the wrong position,” Donovan said. “He was put in a position that he’s not used to playing. He does a better job, as you saw with Julian Green‘s goal, being in a deeper position. And having someone in a front of him, someone to help Clint also, makes him that much better because he’s got more opportunity to pick out different passes, more attacking options ahead of him. I think that was clearly an error.”
Whether driven by anger at seeing his friends, and his national team, miss a golden opportunity to make a deep World Cup run, or driven by continued resentment at being denied his chance at playing in a fourth World Cup, and playing on the sport’s biggest stage one final time, Donovan decided to join the folks bashing Klinsmann rather than taking the high road and letting the court of public opinion cast a verdict on Klinsmann’s performance as coach.
it may have felt like something Donovan had to do, but in the end it smacked of petulance and bitterness and not the actions of someone who once said that he would be the U.S. team’s biggest fan even if he were left off the World Cup team.
I can’t agree with that. Donovan was asked questions and he answered them. He’s a soccer player, not a politician. If you don’t want his actual opinion, don’t ask for it.
A little perspective is in order. The USA looked great in qualifying but drew the worst group at the World Cup — Ghana, Portugal and Germany. Hardly anyone expected them to get out of that group. I didn’t expect them to get out of that group, with or without Donovan. Germany and Portugal were the favorites, but the latter got hammered by the former and never recovered.
The US did get out of that ghastly group, and that was a huge achievement, and Klinsmann deserves huge credit for that. His tactics mostly worked, even against Belgium. Very few defenses have been able to stop Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku even when they’re not tired. He came on when the US defense was already haggard and had stopped Belgium’s talented group, and he made the difference. That’s what great players do, and Lukaku is on track to become great.
Klinsmann rolled the dice by taking only one real big-body striker to Brazil, Jozy Altidore. Altidore has had a very off year at Sunderland. His selection was a bit of a surprise given how poorly he has played over the last year, when Eddie Johnson was available and they’re very similar players. Johnson was not selected for Brazil either. So the USA went into Brazil too thin at a very important position.
Altidore’s hamstring injury in the first game versus Ghana forced Klinsmann’s hand. He had to refigure the team. He had to push Dempsey into more of a lone striker role, and he chose to push Bradley, who is usually more of a deep-lying midfielder, farther forward into more of a center attacking role. Bradley is a very good player and has experience in Europe, but that position shift didn’t suit Bradley, and it showed — he was the guy giving the ball away all the time. His giveaway in the closing seconds against Portugal led directly to the tying goal, which cost the US two points and sent it into the knockout round against a tougher opponent. That’s what Donovan observes in the quotes above. He’s right.
Had Donovan been available — had Klinsmann taken him to Brazil, that is — Altidore’s injury probably would have hurt less. Donovan is not the same kind of player as Jozy Altidore. Altidore is a big, bullying striker. He’s a wrecking ball. Donovan is a creative midfielder who can score from just about anywhere. He pulls the strings. He unlocks defenses. He has loads of experience. He can change a game at any moment with the killer pass or an unexpected shot. He can carry a team that is struggling. He can be the creative outlet for a team under siege, as the US was for most of its games, because the US still isn’t a world power in soccer. But we’re getting there.
Klinsmann left Donovan out of Brazil. That had to hurt.
It’s hard not to have some sympathy for Donovan. He is better than almost every player that Klinsmann ended up taking to Brazil. Dempsey can claim to be better, maybe, on his best days. He is certainly very good. Tim Howard is definitely a world class keeper, but you can’t really compare a keeper to a creative midfielder like Donovan. Howard just seems to get better every year. But Donovan is a unique talent, not terribly big, not the fastest man out there, but he is extremely skilled, very elusive, and hyper aware of the game around him. He makes any team a little better, and sometimes a lot better. I mentioned his arrogance, which is real, but there is a selflessness about him too. He is a team player. Donovan could have played in Europe, and has at times, but he has chosen to play most of his career in the US to help grow soccer here by being the face of the sport. Playing in Europe pays more and offers the big trophies and endorsements. Donovan basically left those opportunities on the table to keep playing here.
And Klinsmann left him out of Brazil.
So I don’t read Donovan’s comments as bitter. They’re honest. He’s an athlete, not a politician.
Klinsmann probably won’t like them, mostly because they’re coming from Landon Donovan. But Klinsmann knows better than anyone else that Donovan is right, and he also knows why Donovan is right. He knows that not all of that has to do with Donovan, but some of it does.
Jurgen Klinsmann is a great coach and he’ll be great for American soccer. He’ll learn from this and build a better team for the next cup. And he will build it without Landon Donovan, unfortunately. It’s a shame that two of America’s top soccer brains will probably never end up working together again.