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Where fans (and some media) have it wrong on the Jurgen Klinsmann-Landon Donovan kerfuffle

One of U.S. Soccer's longest tenured journalists attempts to explain what motivations may have driven Klinsmann to leave Donovan off the World Cup roster, and it's not as bad as you might think.

Tom Szczerbowski

Attempting to explain the seemingly unexplainable is tough, slippery business.  Truly, how do we rationalize the actions of a mad scientist? Because by definition they are a bit, well, mad, aren’t they?

So it’s no surprise that the public and some media may have a few things wrong about this Jurgen Klinsmann-Landon Donovan kerfuffle.

Again, no surprise that we are all wandering a bit here, seeking our bearings, stunned by last week’s concussion grenade lobbed into an otherwise soft soccer Thursday.

It drove us into an odd place in American soccer. Donovan, whose popularity index seems suddenly up there with this new, enlightened Pope, has been voted off a high value island by the only man whose vote really counts. So the national team’s all-time leading scorer, the very face of American soccer for more than a decade, but a man with a complicated, sometimes tortured relationship with United States fans, suddenly became the “victim” of Klinsmann’s habitual tinkering.

Now the high cries of “Oh, the injustice!” are out for the very man so many U.S. Soccer supporters treated with eye-rolling derision (and worse) for years. Yesterday’s red-tinged fan zeitgeist re Landon Donovan (which I never bought into, fyi) went something like this: “He’s soft and isn’t doing his part for U.S. Soccer because he won’t shift his life to Europe and refuses to be the best he can be! The nerve of him!”

Today, the prevailing fan flavor for Donovan has been chemically transformed from sour to sweet in an instant. “This guy has done so much for U.S. Soccer, and Klinsmann just tossed him into the recycle bin like last year’s unloved toy.  The nerve of him!”

I’m not sure any of us (unless you’re name is Jurgen Klinsmann) can fully explain this one. Personally, I think Donovan could serve a useful purpose in Brazil. And even while allowing that Donovan does consume lots of the oxygen in the room, figuratively speaking, I just cannot see him as any sort of toxic presence.  

So Klinsmann’s bombshell – it created a true “Where were you?” moment, as in
“Where were you when you heard about Landon Donovan?” – is a head scratcher to me as well.

I do believe, having spent some time with Klinsmann during the qualifying cycle, having heard him talk so frequently about “givers and takers” in life and having seen his preternaturally positive persona, that maybe I can do this: perhaps I can eliminate some of the darker theories spinning from cynical corners, or emanating from those just somehow feeling personally hurt by this.

This is Klinsmann being Klinsmann, a man who has demonstrated his unconventional thinking and unpredictable ways from his first day on the U.S. job back in 2011. I don’t think it’s “personal” the way some have suggested. Nor is this about looking toward 2018. This is just a coach making a choice; a lot of us may not agree with it, but there are no dark motives at work.

Start here: I think we all know that this isn’t about Donovan’s fading talent (no matter what Klinsmann says).  Donovan’s sun may be setting, but it can still leave a nasty burn. In other words, we all know that Donovan, in the right frame of mind and introduced in the right spot, can turn a match in ways that Julian Green or Brad Davis or Chris Wondolowski or whoever probably cannot.

So like most everyone, I just don’t buy that Donovan is seriously lagging in “certain areas.”  Still, I don’t see any shadowy lurking here, which others seem to see when examining this complicated Rorschach pattern. Some fans, and even some highly respected media colleagues, in an understandable strain to view this one clearly are pinning it on conspiracy or personal agendas – and these are things I just don’t see.

This narrative about it being “personal” isn’t 100 percent wrong, but it’s misdirected. Every coaching choice in every sport, from rosters to game-day selections, is “personal” at some point.  Plenty of coaches and players have professional, working relationships even if they don’t share common values or interests. They don’t have to be drinking buds to bond over a common goal.

Besides, Klinsmann is not that guy, not an angry man. He’s not the one screaming at kids to get off his dat-gum lawn. In fact, he’s a “live and let live” type, one who couldn’t be more smiley-happy-lovey if he wore a beatnik-style peace sign t-shirt to work every day. I doubt he has ever frowned and said about Donovan, “I just don’t like that guy!”

I’m not sure Klinsmann spends much time in his life really disliking anyone; he would see so much negative energy as an absolute waste of time.

So it’s not exactly correct to say that Klinsmann doesn’t like Donovan, personally. Now, it is fair to say that Klinsmann doesn’t understand Donovan.  That’s a different matter. ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas was the first to put it so, and it’s one of the really smart takes. Donovan confuses Klinsmann, and the manager doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

Klinsmann as a player was a complete opposite, always striving through his career choices to stretch himself, to improve and broaden himself as a player and person. Upon assuming his position with U.S. Soccer in 2011, the single most important tenet Klinsmann attempted to drive home to his players wasn’t about tactics or strategic game-day approaches. Rather, it was about the blessedness of personal discontent, about the raging desire to improve themselves in every possible way.

Donovan, meanwhile, always seemed to carry a restrictor plate on his personal development.  

I certainly can see Klinsmann craning his neck like a curious dog when he thinks about Donovan and the American attacker’s atypical approach to professional pursuits. In quiet moments with trusted colleagues, I can see Klinsmann saying with smile, "I just don't understand Landon Donovan!”

And here is where we connect the dots. As human beings, we don't trust what we don't understand. Klinsmann needs fighters and, as Michael Bradley put it, sufferers, for the Brazilian group play gauntlet ahead. I don’t know if Klinsmann trusted Donovan to be the presence the team needed – whatever that was in Klinsmann’s assessment. (That’s where it gets tougher to dissect, because Klinsmann has always employed a different set of valuation metrics in these choices, which is certainly within his rights.)

The “trust” theorem for explaining “LandonGate” does admittedly fall apart somewhat given a couple of other brow-raising roster choices. Timmy Chandler’s level of commitment to the program has been every bit as unwavering as a Popsicle on hot August day, and yet there he is. I suppose that Klinsmann simply needs a right back so badly that he’s willing to take a flier. For that matter, I suppose maybe Donovan should have just volunteered to play right back; then he’d probably be on the team.  

Where else have we all wandered off the trail on l’affaire de Landon? Plenty of fans and more than a few media voices believe some part of Klinsmann's job is about building the sport here. I might have agreed a dozen years ago. Then again, I was listening to music on Napster back then. Things do change.

The game’s growth curve looks fine to me. More to the point, Donovan doesn’t deserve a place on the team because his is the most recognizable U.S. Soccer face. Coaches have the right to go after wins the best way they know how. Period.

Marketing alarmism aside, assertions that Donovan deserved a spot on the team because, well, he’s Landon “Legacy” Donovan are duds, too. This is a World Cup, and there are no legacy spots available. I’ve written thousands of words through the years on Donovan’s abilities, contributions and high achievement – but none of that should be seen as a chip to turn in for a final World Cup victory lap.

Besides, Donovan’s legacy is secure. He’s hasn’t just been to three World Cups, he’s been a mighty contributor in three World Cups – and lots of great soccer players through history cannot say the same.

There is fan and media scorn over the timing, some notion that Klinsmann was wrong to bring Donovan to camp if he “had his mind made up all along.” Again, I just don’t see a sinister motive here. That doesn’t even make sense. Why would Klinsmann create more problems for himself? Why risk further entanglement?

There is never a “good time” for these tough and painful decisions. When is the best time to break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend? When is the best time to lay off a valued, well-liked employee, but one that a struggling business can simply no longer afford? The answer, of course, is never. The blow is going to leave a bruise whenever it’s delivered.

I don’t believe Klinsmann’s mind was made up before naming the 30-man group. He certainly may have had doubts, but his mind wasn’t set. Most likely, he wasn’t looking to assess Donovan’s technical abilities at present, nor his fitness (which was just fine by all reports). More likely, this was all about taking Donovan’s temperature in terms of mood, spunk and spirit. Donovan can be a pensive sort; maybe Klinsmann just wanted more energy in the group.

Here’s the theory I really don’t buy: due to the bloody back alley beating of a draw, Klinsmann (or even high levels of U.S. Soccer … yes, this has really been suggested) essentially decided to bag this tournament in a mad mission of building toward 2018.

First, Klinsmann is a highly competitive person and a confident manager. He absolutely believes he can begin building toward 2018 AND make some hay next month in Brazil.

Second, if that were truly the case, why take Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones, both of whom will likely play a significant role in Brazil? They will be 36 by 2018, and we certainly don’t see many 36-year-old central midfielders at the World Cup, do we?

Finally, Klinsmann is too honorable for that, someone who respects the game and everyone around it. He understands that this World Cup, this group of players especially, deserves his best effort and U.S. Soccer’s best effort. Adding Julian Green and Anthony Brooks may be a small piece of a larger puzzle, but there’s been no concession here. There are no “2018 or bust” signs up in Klinsmann’s office.

There are no malignant motives here. There was never a Machiavellian line of clever deceit at work here.  You may not agree with Klinsmann’s assessments, and that’s fine. I’ve certainly puzzled over some of his choices, this one included.

But he surely believes this is the best path to success in Brazil, the best way forward for success in 2014. It’s his job to make these calls, and he’s “all in” here; his reputation is riding on this bold choice.