Saturday, November 15, 2014

Kill the Ghost. Let It Die So LD Can Live in Peace

I have a soft spot for this blog, but Twitter is where it's at with all the cool social media kids these days. Communication in short bursts has both benefits and drawbacks, as I found out in a recent dust-up over the medium. 

I like Phil, he's a great guy, but this tweet drives me crazy. Landon is not a What If. 

A What If is the sad song of a career cut short before it ever got a chance to flourish, due to injury or some other tragic occurrence. People shake their heads, remembering the youthful talent that never reached maturity. Len Bias is a What If. Or this guy. Or Steve Snow, if you need US Soccer-specific examples. 

Freddy Adu, in contrast, is not a What If. He is a Fizzle-out, but that's a blog post for another day. 

Landon isn't that at all. Yes, he showed tremendous potential in the USA youth teams, winning the Golden Ball at the U17 World Cup, plus he helped propel the U.S. team to a medal round in the Sydney Olympics. But he wasn't struck down on the eve of the 2002 World Cup - his first true world stage - by a deranged fan like Roy Hobbs in Malamud's The Natural. 

No. Donovan played very well in that World Cup, in fact. Part of that was no doubt due to his good form from his regular play in MLS, where he helped the San Jose Earthquakes win a championship in 2001.

Does anyone seriously think that LD would have been ready for the 2002 World Cup if he had stayed in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen, playing reserve games? Remember, he was there two years (1999-2001), and endured three different coaches, including the cocaine-addled Christoph Daum. Let's refresh those memory banks on how the loan to MLS happened. 

(It's worth noting that in that original loan contract, playing time was so important to Donovan that a clause prevented his recall to Germany unless it was for the first team, not the reserves.)

So those acting like Donovan would have been 'truly great' at that 2002 World Cup "if he had stayed in Europe" are ignoring all evidence to the contrary.  

LD at Bayer
Bayer seemed content to let their young talent continue to mature for another two years, but they were willing to let LD have another chance when his MLS loan expired late in 2004. He returned to a Leverkusen club loaded with attacking players and led by a skeptical Klaus Augenthaler, who was rolling quite well with his current corps of players and less than inclined to give Donovan a chance. At one point, Donovan did play, and it didn't go well. After that, Donovan didn't play.  

For those thinking, "He should have stayed anyway!" The World Cup was approaching, and Donovan knew he needed playing time to be ready. He asked for a release, and Bayer had little problem letting a player they weren't using go back to MLS. 

In late 2008, Donovan trained and played on loan with Bayern Munich while Jurgen Klinsmann was coach. At the time, I thought it was great that Klinsmann was giving Donovan a chance, but really, it was a last-ditch move by a coach who was already failing miserably at the club and it backfired because the players didn't trust Klinsmann or anyone associated with him. 

Donovan did have two relatively successful loan stints with Everton. He fit in well there precisely because it was a team that was geared to his style of play and where he could contribute without being relied on exclusively. 

My view is that, while talented, Donovan would likely not ever have shone at Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid, or the like. He was best suited, like Claudio Reyna before him, to a quality team, like Manchester City, who could use and appreciate his talents. Reyna is respected for his tenure there, but not revered. And Reyna's many years in Europe didn't make him superlative for the national team. He contributed, but not nearly as much as Donovan has for the USA. 

No one has. Donovan has no competition for what he has done for US soccer, unless it's from the Ghost Donovan that people conjure up whenever they imagine an alternate universe where Donovan stayed in Europe, was granted plenty of playing time, never sustained a serious injury, and became a respected world player. 

I've written before on the Ghost Donovan phenomenon. Which pretty much matches my overall, he's a'ight view again, here, so people can't say I'm not consistent. As a bonus, here's Luis' take on LD. 

I'm going to posit the theory that Donovan thrived on the game time, stability and family support he got while in MLS, and this gave him full rein and control of a wide variety of playing gears that were ideal for the USA squad. His goals and assists totals wouldn't have been possible in a team that had many better players to compete against him for the midfield and forward positions. Instead, it was a squad that needed and made good use of his versatility for years. 

Donovan isn't a What If. He is, most emphatically, a player who was who he really was - pretty darn good. If people would just stop making the perfect fantasy scenario the enemy of the good career, they could appreciate Donovan, now on the cusp of retirement, for the quality player he most definitely was. 

Goodbye, Landon. You were so good, for so long, that people took that for granted and imagined you could somehow have been much better and declared you a failure when that never happened. There are worse ways to be remembered, but your service to the U.S. team, MLS and American soccer as a whole deserved better.

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