Landon Donovan has been accused of being robotic, of sharing little emotion and coming off in interviews almost disinterested. There have been glimpses that there's more to his personality than he often shares, but we've gotten a greater dose of that during this World Cup, as he's done various commercials and become a fixture in ESPN's coverage of the United States Men's National Team.
When Donovan is honest, it can almost be to a fault. One of those instances came this weekend, when his interview with LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke came to light.
While Plaschke -- who surely knows Donovan from his days as a young Southern California soccer phenom -- does his best to frame the story in as flattering a light as possible, the takeaway for most people seems to be this nugget:
"I'll be completely honest, watching them play Azerbaijan, inside, part of me was thinking, I hope the game doesn't go very well today," Plaschke quotes Donovan as saying. "In my heart of hearts, I thought, if we get a 1-0 win and the team doesn't perform well, that would feel good."
Donovan went on to say that it was a fleeting emotion and that he recognized how petty it was. Plaschke wants us to understand that it took great amounts of humanity for Donovan to find it in his heart to forgive Jurgen Klinsmann and that supporting his former teammates was something that required "the most startling transformation in a U.S. World Cup effort filled with them."
It is not surprising, in the least, that a vocal portion of the USA fan base has ignored Plaschke's hackneyed approach and instead decided to deem Donovan's honesty as something just short of treasonous. But if we're being honest ourselves, there's nothing particularly controversial or even surprising about what he said. So, he was upset that he was cut and denied his fourth World Cup and wanted to believe the team was worse off without him. Every single person reading this can relate. Every player who came close to making the team but didn't, if they're being honest, surely felt similar emotions. It's pretty darn human, in fact, which is something many of Donovan's detractors doubted he had in him.
That Donovan almost immediately got over these emotions was also entirely predictable, no matter what Plashcke would like us to believe. The USMNT isn't just some former employer; at least, it's not supposed to be. Donovan understands that as well as anyone. If he had continued to quietly root against them, well, then you'd have to wonder, but nothing we've heard him say suggests that's the case.
Was the timing odd? Yes. Donovan could have very easily waited until after the World Cup, or at least after the U.S. was eliminated, to give us this peek into his heart.
What those comments did illuminate, though, was maybe part of why Donovan was left off the team in the first place. Klinsmann has never really come out with a great explanation for why Donovan was not brought to Brazil. There has been no shortage of speculation, of course, and this seems to give at least some credence to the theory that Klinsmann just didn't think Donovan was the kind of personality he wanted in his locker room. Klinsmann is someone who believes in the power of motivational speakers, who believes players must constantly be challenging themselves, who rejects the idea that past accomplishments should trump current form.
Did Klinsmann cut Donovan to the detriment of his squad?
Considering the lack of quality wide play the USMNT has received, that appears to be the case. Even if Donovan is no longer a world-class wide midfielder, it's not hard to imagine him turning in a better performance than either Brad Davis or Alejandro Bedoya. How much better? That's debatable.
But Klinsmann and Donovan were never going to see eye-to-eye. Klinsmann seems to have decided that whatever value-add Donovan had on the field was counter-balanced by an attitude he didn't want from a player who'd invariably be seen as a leader. Klinsmann either wanted Donovan to be a player he no longer was or a leader he'd probably never be.