Landon Donovan: Troubling Signs of Immaturity Reappear


Grant Wahl’s book The Beckham Experiment which is a masterpiece of sports writing also brings up the troubling subject of Landon Donovan and his continued lack of maturity. Wahl doesn’t characterize it as such, but I have no choice but to see it as such.

As our readers know, I love Landon Donovan as a player. I’ve probably penned more positive articles about him in the three years this site has been operating than about any other individual. But Donovan is a troubling figure for those of us who support the US program. Why is our most talented field player ever reduced to seeing out his career in MLS, when far less gifted players have survived in Europe? Why did a player who was so brilliant at the youth international level not adapt to German training, and then came home in 2001?

Why did Donovan flop again in 2005 when he returned to Bayer Leverkusen? This is after all the same club Frankie Hejduk far less talented or touted than Donovan survived at for four seasons. Why were American players like Tony Sanneh, for example were able to use A-League and MLS success to work their way to Germany, while Donovan seemed to go in the reverse direction?

I have often defended Donovan for making a lifestyle choice, sometimes simply out of duty to protect what I consider a one of a kind player in USMNT history.  It was after all a decision about living in the most comfortable place on earth (So Cal, even though San Jose should have technically owned his MLS rights, but that is a subject for another time) instead of living in the Ruhr Valley, or Munich. But after reading Wahl’s book earlier this week I am left with a very bitter taste in my mouth.

While Donovan was right to be shocked byDavid  Beckham’s “alligator arms” when it came to paying for an expensive dinner at a Steakhouse in Northern Virginia, Donovan also confronted Alexi Lalas over why he and not Chris Klein was the team MVP a few short months later. Donovan claimed every journalist he had spoken to voted for him. But watching the Galaxy late in the season, as I did that year, Klein was clearly the steady, calming, veteran presence over a team that had previously been a circus spinning out of control. Donovan’s immaturity and anger in confronting Lalas was unconscionable especially considering his case to win the award over Klein was not as strong as some (including himself) may have thought, and also because he seemed to be interested in his $25,000 bonus which he did earn thanks to confronting Lalas.

Klein is the consummate professional. A player any other MLS or USMNT player will tell you is a decent and nice guy. Those sorts of players tend to be more valuable on teams that are star laden than Landon Donovan may want to admit. Moreover, Donovan’s anger about the issue reflected an insecurity in the midst of the Beckham circus which explains a great deal of his other behavior at the time.

Ruud Gullit had no idea how to manage in the MLS. He was completely out of his depth with the MLS rules and squad structure. But one thing he did know is how to manage in game tactically. But Landon Donovan, so used to getting his way with Americanized coaches couldn’t handle Gullit’s attempt to move him into the midfield versus Kansas City in early 2008 and he blew up when his coach starting swearing at him.

Coming from the protected bubble of American soccer this incident sadly illustrates to me why Landon Donovan, unlike dozens of less talented American players has not been able to adapt to the competitive rigors of European club football in his three previous attempts to do so. It was in this same match that Donovan dove in the penalty area to draw a PK for his team. So angry was Donovan about being characterized as a “diver” by the LA Times well respected soccer writer Grahame Jones, he didn’t speak to the beat writer for weeks.

Donovan’s bitter and angry behavior only intensified during the months when the Galaxy’s season unraveled and by October he was saying the type of things which led David Beckham this past weekend to say he had never been so insulted professionally in his life.

Much of what Donovan said was of course in fact true. But Donovan’s motivations for his commentary and behavior must be considered. From the time Beckham landed at LAX, Donovan had a conflicted feeling of jealously/envy and wanting to make it work with Beckham. While Beckham himself is a cagey, withdrawn figure, Donovan appears to have let the former impulse dominate after time.

Donovan’s past failures and mistakes have hardened him as a footballer and a person. But he still shows smattering of immaturity, like the throat slash he gave to FC Dallas fans in 2007 and the treatment he gave Jones last year. All of this has to be taken into consideration when judging Donovan’s handling of Beckham.

Furthermore, European clubs aware of Donovan’s past failures at top clubs will now hesitate even more to look at the American superstar. The eyes that may have been reopened to Donovan in the Confederations Cup are now potentially shutting again because of his somewhat unprofessional gripes about Beckham. The pity is that Donovan is a better field player than anyone in the US pool. He’s a better player than Oguchi Onyewu who just signed for AC Milan. He’s a better player than Clint Dempsey who was the most outstanding player on his Peemier League club this year. He’s also a far superior player than Freddy Adu or Jozy Altidore the youngsters with so much promise are likely to ever be.

But if you are a European Scout, Dempsey, Onyewu, Altidore, Adu and at least a dozen other American field players will be higher on your priority list than Donovan. That is the greatest pity of this.

David Beckham states that he and Donovan have made up which is critical coming into tomorrow night’s highly anticipated national TV matchup with New York. But given the history of their relationship and both players personalities any détente is bound to be short lived, unless attitudes really have changed.


  • We’ll have a piece on Jimmy Conrad’s value to the US team tomorrow, and a look at Panama late Friday. I am also working on a piece regarding Kenny Cooper and Freddy Adu’s perceived failures as National Team members in this Gold Cup.
  • We bash English Football alot on this site, but I want to give credit to a class of entrepreneurial English managers who have adopted to life outside the old country and have survived tactically and culturally abroad. Roy Hodgson now of Fulham is a perfect example as are Peter Reid and Bobby Houghton.  But for me Gary Stempel is the best story of the bunch and I will admit I have supported Panama’s National Team (until Saturday, of course!) since they hired the Englisman last year. The truth is I would give English football much more consideration and respect if they had more Stempel’s and Hodgson’s around and less insular and tactically inflexible managers. Here is a great piece on Stempel from the Daily Mail.
  • Chris Riordan, our correspondent in the Washington area has some excellent audio material with reigning USL-1 player of the year Jonny Steele and Puerto Rico Islanders Manager Colin Clarke from the 0-0 draw between the Islanders and Cleveland City Stars he covered for us this weekend.
  • I made my color commentary debut on USL Live’s broadcast of Miami-Vancouver on Sunday. The telecast is now available in the archives on USL Live. Unfortunately, the audio quality is very poor (while the video quality is outstanding) and thus you’ll need good speakers to listen to my analysis along with the play by play expertly delivered by Ignacio Rodriguez-Argote.
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About Kartik Krishnaiyer

A lifelong lover of soccer, the beautiful game, he served from January 2010 until May 2013 as the Director of Communications and Public Relations for the North American Soccer League (NASL). Raised on the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the old NASL, Krishnaiyer previously hosted the American Soccer Show on the Champions Soccer Radio Network, the Major League Soccer Talk podcast and the World Soccer Talk Podcast. His soccer writing has been featured by several media outlets including The Guardian and The Telegraph. He is the author of the books 'Blue With Envy' about Manchester City FC, and 'Soccerwarz' about the MLS, USL and NASL infighting.
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