“He failed there because he didn’t believe in himself”
Those are the words of Jürgen Klinsmann, describing Landon Donovan’s performance in a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss to Germany in the 2002 World Cup. In a hard-fought match, Donovan failed to convert multiple one-on-one chances against German keeper Oliver Kahn — and drew curt criticism from Klinsmann:
”The U.S. played a great game — they had it in their hands. They were winning most of the one-on-one situations in the midfield… But these are games decided by the mind, not the feet.”
In German culture mental strength is everything. As a German-American growing up in Wisconsin, my father saw this firsthand. At a young age he was often asked to climb up into a silo and arrange silage (basically, chopped up corn) as it was launched up to him. The experience stuck with him, and he told me how terrifying it was — how he would panic with feelings of claustrophobia when the cramped silo began to fill up and the walls of silage closed in around him. If he gave in to his fear and climbed down early, he faced mockery from his family. “Fauler Hund,” they’d say – it means “Lazy Dog” in German, but faul has another meaning: rotten.
Immersed in a culture that values mental strength above all else, my father was taunted for his claustrophobia with the same word you’d use to describe a decaying corpse.
On May 22nd, 2014 – a mere 10 days into World Cup training camp for the United States Men’s National Team – head coach Jürgen Klinsmann drops a bombshell. He announces the final 23 man roster for the 2014 World Cup, and it comes with a gaping omission — Landon Donovan, the US’s most prolific player, hasn’t made the cut. Speculation runs rampant as to why. Was it Donovan’s declining fitness, or perhaps a lack of effort? There’s evidence that neither is the answer: Landon Donovan finished near the top of the pack in the dreaded beep test in camp – a test that measures both fitness and willingness to push the body past immense pain and to its absolute limits – and by all accounts showed very well in training. Donovan’s known to be honest when assessing his own play, and this was his take:
“Based on my performances leading up to camp, based on my preparation for the camp, based on my fitness, based on my workload, based on the way I trained and played in camp, I not only thought I was a part of the 23, but thought I was in contention to be starting.”
There’s an argument to be made that some of the other players showed better form in MLS. By the beginning of camp Donovan still hadn’t scored in league play. He’d only managed 2 assists in 7 games. Compare that to Brad Davis, a player who did make the final 23, and who put up 5 assists in 8 games. On face value it seems a fair argument — but the numbers don’t tell the whole story. During those 7 games, Landon was forced to play 3 different positions while Brad Davis played in his preferred position all year. Davis also benefitted from the number of home games his team played. Four of his five assists came at home. Donovan, on the other hand, only played 2 home games all year.
Donovan shouldn’t be judged on goals or assists, but rather on how dangerous he looks on the field. Any Galaxy fan will tell you that in the games leading up to the World Cup camp, Landon looked dangerous — and there’s no reason to suspect he wasn’t equally dangerous during camp.
So what’s this all about? If form and fitness aren’t the issue, could the culprit be a difficult relationship between player and coach? When asked whether he thought the decision was based on something personal, Landon had this to say:
“I thought if I was only judged on what happened in camp, I deserved to be in Brazil.”
It’s not exactly a denial. If there’s another reason – if Donovan’s snub stems from a personal problem with Jürgen Klinsmann – surely there’s a moment in their storied history that could clue the rest of us in.
It’s 1999. Seventeen-year-old Landon Donovan is fresh out of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He’s young, talented, accomplished – and he’s attracted the attention of German side Bayer Leverkusen with his stellar play for the US U–17’s. Leverkusen offers him a youth contract, and with his stars seemingly aligned Donovan boards a plane to Germany.
The honeymoon will be short: Landon battles severe bouts of homesickness which prevent him from living up to his full potential at Leverkusen. By 2001, Nike gets involved in negotiating Donovan’s move to MLS. Landon fails to show up to Leverkusen training in time, and the entire ordeal plays itself out in the press. Eventually Donovan gets loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2001 season.
But the damage to his reputation, at least in the eyes of Jürgen Klinsmann, may have already been done. By 2001 Klinsmann is in Southern California and keeping a close eye on the local product’s burgeoning career. We can’t know what he thought of Donovan’s departure from Leverkusen — but it does bring to mind Jürgen’s uniquely harsh critique of Landon’s World Cup performance, just a year later:
“He failed there because he didn’t believe in himself.”
Anyone who actually watched that game against Germany knows that Landon Donovan forced Oliver Kahn to make several outstanding saves. During the game the German broadcasters had nothing but praise for the young striker. Jürgen’s criticisms of Donovan are out of step with the rest of the media and ring false. But why? Was Jürgen disappointed in Donovan for not toughing it out in Germany — and did that disappointment seep into his assessment of Donovan’s chances on goal in that game? One thing is certain: no one else in the media saw the same shortcomings Jürgen did.
Jump forward to 2008. Jürgen Klinsmann returns to Bayern Munich, the club where he became a legend as a player, to take the reigns as coach. Klinsmann sells the board on a bold and revolutionary approach. He incorporates yoga classes into the Bayern fitness regimen; he experiments with downright crazy soccer formations. Perhaps the biggest risk of all, however, is his decision to bring in Landon Donovan on loan. At the age of 25, Donovan is playing some of the best soccer of his life with the LA Galaxy. And Klinsmann seems to think he’s finally ready for Germany:
“Obviously in Germany, Landon is not an unknown player, because he came as a very young player to Bayer Leverkusen and he got his feet wet in the German Bundesliga, and he saw how tough it is— How competitive … professional soccer is in this country and Europe in general, and he felt like ‘I’m not up to this, you know, I go back to the United States’ … [but] he grew up. He matured year by year, and now he is in a moment where he’s proved himself at the national stage, at the World Cup and other competitions. And he feels ready. He feels ready for showing people in Europe about his qualities … and obviously I had the pleasure of seeing him throughout the years, living in Los Angeles, and I’ve always said to friends of mine, he could make it in Europe. It’s more a mental thing, than it’s a football thing.”
Jürgen puts his neck on the line with the Bayern board. Not only does he bring Landon in on loan, but – at least in the beginning – he rates him above Lukas Podolski in the depth chart. That’s Podolski, breakout player for Germany in the 2006 World Cup, brushed aside for a no-name American. Jürgen is entrusting an enormous amount of faith in Donovan but he’s also placing him under tremendous scrutiny. In Bayern, all eyes are fixed on Landon Donovan and the man who brought him in. Anything less than a stellar loan performance will be seen as a failure for both. Given the astronomical expectations it’s no surprise that Donovan’s performance, while solid, fails to impress.
Donovan’s loan isn’t extended — and it isn’t long before Jürgen finds himself on the Bayern chopping block as well. While his firing is not specifically due to bringing in Landon Donovan, the failed Donovan experiment is definitely a factor. And that’s the bottom line: had Landon met the expectations placed on him – however ridiculous and unreasonable – Jürgen Klinsmann may have kept his job. Instead his removal was public and humiliating, and his credibility as a coach was destroyed in the eyes of the German public. Klinsmann put so much faith in Landon Donovan — and one can’t help but wonder whether he regrets that now.
Which brings us to 2010. The USMNT is headed into World Cup camp under head coach Bob Bradley and Donovan, who has just undergone a divorce with his wife, is incredibly candid in the press about his emotional state. “Coaches have certainly helped,” he says, along with “family, therapy and spending a lot of time looking at myself in an honest way.” And reflecting on his struggles in the 2006 World Cup, Donovan cites his own mental unpreparedness. “At 20 [for the 2002 World Cup], it was youthful exuberance and naiveté and literally just playing every day because you loved to play every day,” he recalls. “Now there’s more responsibility […] I enjoy the challenge of that now. In 2006, that became burdensome because I wasn’t ready for it. Now I’m ready and I’m really excited for it.”
After scoring the game winning goal against Algeria, Donovan breaks into tears while describing his emotional journey to reporters:
“I went through a lot in the last few years, and I’m so glad it culminated this way.”
It’s catharsis for the brooding Donovan, yet you have to wonder if it jives with Jürgen Klinsmann’s German sensibilities. Klinsmann wants a shark on the field — players who have supreme confidence in themselves and their abilities. Among professional athletes, Donovan has always seemed unique: he has doubts, like anyone, and he’s open about them. Does that openness make him an ill-fit for Jürgen’s mold of an ideal player?
In 2011 Jürgen replaces Bob Bradley as coach of the USMNT. Meanwhile, Donovan is on a roll. He’s led the LA Galaxy to back-to-back MLS Cups, and under Klinsmann he scores a hat trick in a friendly against Scotland. The hatchet, if there ever was one between the two, seems buried.
Then, out of nowhere, Landon Donovan drops a bombshell. After winning the 2012 MLS Cup, Landon Donovan declares he is mentally exhausted from non-stop soccer and goes on an indefinite hiatus from the sport—this, just as the USMNT are about to enter the final round of world cup qualifying. One wonders if Donovan’s subsequent Cambodian spirit journey appears to Jürgen like earmarks of a complete mental breakdown. If so, Donovan’s subsequent remarks do little to help his case:
“I see so many athletes that I know are not performing at their highest level because they’re not aware of what kind of person they are. And they would perform a lot better if they maybe just saw a therapist or talked to somebody about what’s going on.”
For Klinsmann, in the midst of building a team for the World Cup, you can’t help but wonder if alarm bells are going off.
When Donovan comes back four months later and regains his form with the Galaxy, Jürgen snubs him by not calling him up to participate in World Cup qualifiers. Instead Landon is called in to play with the on-the-bubble players in the Gold Cup. It’s a slap in the face to Donovan, but Landon handles the situation with class, both in the press and on the field. Shaka Hislap remarked that if Landon Donovan had not performed well at the Gold Cup, his “international career might have been over.” But Donovan does better than well — he leads the US on an undefeated run, snagging the tournament’s MVP honors in the process.
Despite his Gold Cup performance, Landon Donovan didn’t make the plane to Brazil. A mere 10 days into camp, Klinsmann announced the final roster — sans Landon Donovan.
What we are dealing with here is a clash of cultures. A clash of understandings about what it means to be mentally fit. For Jürgen Klinsmann, belief in one’s self is key. Asked what success in Brazil would require, Klinsmann said “we need to make the players understand it is all about mind games. Every game becomes 50–50 and will be won by the team who is better prepared and believes in themselves more.” And for Jürgen Klinsmann, that means toughing it out. He once had this to say about the way soccer players are treated in this country:
“We don’t have the environment telling them nicely, ’OK you had a good week, but next week has to be better, and the next week again. Here it’s: ‘Oh, take a week off.’ No, don’t take a week off. If you take a week off as a programmer at Apple, you missed the train, you lost the job. You can’t afford it.”
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum is Landon Donovan’s take on mental fitness:
“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. …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 OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with letting them take the time they need to come back.”
Landon has always been willing to do what he needs to do and sacrifice what he needs to sacrifice to get his mind in the right place to play soccer. He left a promising career in Europe because, ultimately, he was happier in California. He quite openly sought therapy in the wake of his divorce, and in 2012, when he reached a point where he was no longer enjoying the game, he walked away from it completely and embarked on a personal journey to rediscover himself.
“[Jürgen] wants mental toughness, an attitude of no fear, and confidence in our ability,” said US defender Geoff Cameron. Are those traits that Jürgen sees in Landon? If my father was scorned for succumbing to his fears and climbing down from the silo, how do the actions of Landon Donovan appear through the lens of Klinsmann’s German sensibilities? Leaving Europe, seeking therapy, walking away from club and country — are these actions incompatible with the German model of what it means to be strong-minded? Is a perceived weakness of character at the root of the decision to leave Landon Donovan off the roster?
Three days after the roster was announced, on a hot afternoon in Carson, Landon Donovan broke the MLS all-time scoring record. Two days after that the USMNT beat Azerbaijan, 2-0. In the tenth minute – the number of Donovan’s jersey – US supporters stood silent in tribute.
But down on the field, with little fanfare, jersey number 10 was already back in action. Mix Diskerud said he was merely “borrowing” it, and when subbed into the second half it was Mix who scored the game winner. It seemed life without Landon had already begun for the USMNT, but US Soccer will never forget his contributions. But after three World Cup tournaments, 12 games, and five goals, an era was finally done.