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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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  1. LOL

    May 17, 2010 at 8:34 pm

    Donovan is a joke 🙂

  2. Dan

    July 31, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    Wow. This is an extremely uninformed piece.

    There are always multiple ways to interpret behaviors. You can choose to call Donovan’s behavior immature. I believe that the fact that he spoke to Wahl about Becks was immature. However, everything else in this piece is BS. You blame Donovan for calling out Lalas for violating the terms of his contract by lying about the results of MVP voting? Really?

    I’d also suggest that you do some research about Donovan’s off-the-field leadership. Ask the players. There are literally hundreds of quotes out there from the time he was in Bradenton on. Look into his role in resolving the labor dispute between USSF and the players. Look up the story about how he helped his (then) girlfriend and her family deal with a major crisis.

    In addition, his decision to remain in the MLS can clearly be interpreted as recognizing what was best for him. You don’t think Adu, Jozy, Feilhaber, Beazley, … etc. would have been better off spending a little more time in MLS? It is clear that going to the wrong team in Europe can kill a career. Maybe Donovan was mature enough to recognize that.

    All of these stories support the perception that Donovan is an extremely mature person. He surely makes mistakes (like everyone else), but I see this piece as overwhelming taking a number of incidents that others have interpreted as signs of his maturity, and then twisting them into a different perspective.

    • Lena

      November 10, 2010 at 2:10 pm

      You took the words right out of my mouth. Also, I am a big fan but Donovan is NOT better than Onyewu, Altidore, or Dempsey. He may have better statistics but that is because he loves to dribble and wait for opportunities. Real team players either take an opportunity i’d there is one or pass and give someone a chance to find an opportunity. That is why you absolutely CANNOT judge and classify football players using statistics or commentary.

  3. soccer goals

    July 17, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Donovan played well last night.

  4. Ted Westervelt

    July 16, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Kartik is on again…. except for the consistent acquiescence to the closed franchise model as concrete fact, of course! Three comments:

    LIttle strikers are a dime a dozen in Europe, and while Donovan is about as good a finisher as we’ve ever seen here in the US, (no offense to Archie Stark) I think that global competition at his size is more fierce than say, at Josie or Eddie or Kenny Cooper’s size.

    Let’s face it folks, if you are posting here there is a 99% chance that if AC Milan and the LA Galaxy both wanted your services, you’re pretty tempted to choose Milan. I’ll bet that Becks sees the MLS as a exhibition league, and until we break our clubs out of the tightly micromanaged franchise model, thats what we get.

    Dempsey’s comments in an AP article a few weeks back musta peeved Lando – he basically said the EPL challenged him, but the MLS fosters complacency. Well, it is an exhibition league…..

  5. Brian

    July 16, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    You all are out of your freaking minds if you think Donovan is “immature” and “spoiled” give me a break. He’s the best player this country has ever produced so in turn he is also scrutinized the most. I admit for several years I couldn’t stand him but everything he has done in the past year has been a welcome change for me. I love how he had the balls to stand up to Beckman and love the fact he is showing more fire and passion than in years past. And the guy doesn’t have to go to “Europe” to prove he is the best or to develop…the guy produces at the International level regardless. He is a professional and an American and can do whatever the hell he wants. At least he gives you all something to write about I guess…

  6. Ian

    July 16, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    Sadly, not a word in this piece is off the mark. That’s why at 27 we still think of Donovan as a kid, and talk about him going to Europe to “develop.”

    He is what he is- a spoiled brat seeking attention. Now back to talking about Americans who actually want to improve their game…….

  7. Louis

    July 16, 2009 at 10:43 am

    He’s an unmotivated immature kid. We always knew that. He only shows up in games when someone shoves him or pisses him off by saying something. US Soccer is to blame for making him the poster child of the national team. That should have been any of the other guys we have who really fight and put the effort in at every turn and don’t whine about the hamburgers not being good at his club destination.

    One of my big complaints with Kartik’s writing is that he appears to be so up Donovan a@# all the time, so this is a welcome change.

  8. Joey Clams

    July 16, 2009 at 8:09 am

    I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention lately, Adam, because Donovan has made plenty of noise about wanting to get back to Europe.

  9. Adam Edg

    July 16, 2009 at 8:05 am

    I think Landycakes is happy being the big fish in the little pond. Over here is a huge soccer star – he is the face of MLS and the USMNT.
    In Europe he was another above average player. If he had some patience and humility, he might have reached the point of stardom in Germany. Would he be a superstar like Becks, probably not. But he would have become a familiar name in the DEL and Champions League.
    Instead he insists on his comfortable life where he can be THE MAN. Then Becks came along and ruined it. His tantrum should be enough to elicit a serious fine and possible transfer. Luckily he plays for Bruce Arena who loves him more than God.
    Landycakes may have a lot of talent, but he will never be one of the greats until he learns to be humble. Gullit saw potential and Landycakes pouted. Perhaps such an accomplished coach should be listened to. I highly doubt that it was Gullit’s lack of tactical play and coaching that led to his dismissal. Rather he couldn’t figure out how to get the league’s star primadonna to do what he wanted…

  10. Joey Clams

    July 16, 2009 at 7:34 am

    Donovan was certainly right to have complained about the MVP farce.

  11. Nicolas

    July 16, 2009 at 7:23 am

    You guys don’t know what you’re talking about. Yet again.

    Donovan is a great leader and the best player ever produced by the US.

  12. Berlin

    July 16, 2009 at 3:46 am

    Buzz kill

  13. quakesin2kNever

    July 15, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    “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”

    No, that is a subject for now and always. No one should be able to criticize SJ for attendance woes after MLS pulled swiped Donovan from us and then AEG swiped the rest of the Dynamo from us. Try having your star player stolen and then your whole team stolen and replaced with an expansion franchise and see how your fanbase reacts.

  14. ERT09

    July 15, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    Donovan’s self absorbed nature is always apparent. I’m no Beckham fan, In fact were I near an MLS city I’d buy a tix just to boo him. But Landy Cakes with his pissing at Jalisco, throat slashes and whinig is the american becks. They are so simlilar they cannot stand each other- how do the cleeb wives get on?>

  15. eplnfl

    July 15, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Kartik, yes you where hard to hear on Sunday but you where extremely informative and carried the broadcast. Hope you have another broadcast for us all soon!

  16. Kartik Krishnaiyer

    July 15, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    The Ianni incident, I totally forgot about. I remember being so angry LA has salvaged a draw that night after that incident that I was thankful I didn’t have a show to do for a few days because I may say something that would have me taken off the air for sometime about Landon.

  17. LI Matt

    July 15, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    Why did Donovan flop again in 2005 when he returned to Bayer Leverkusen?

    He was competing with Berbatov for playing time. If he hadn’t thrown a tantrum, things would’ve worked out differently, especially as Berbatov left a year later. But he did, and that’s that.

    But he still shows smattering of immaturity,…

    There was also the Patrick Ianni incident, which Wahl called “bush-league”.

  18. Lars

    July 15, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    Nevermind the fact that everything he said about Beckham was totally justified. Never mind the fact he’s a superstar and superstars have personalities. No, let’s just totally insult the best player to be produced in the United States in the past two decades and call him immature because he wants to do things his way, rather than the way fans (who by the way, don’t know jack) want things done.

    This piece is one of your worst Kartik. You’re acting like a typical fanboy in this league, proclaiming their team will make playoffs after one win and the next game declaring that the coach should be drawn and quartered after a loss…

  19. Rex

    July 15, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    I agree. Donovan’s personality always overshadowed his performances, but the Confed Cup changed my mind. He was amazing on the field and as a bonus he was good off the field. Then the book came out and it just makes me think…”same old Donovan.” From what i have heard from the book, i have lost a lot of respect for Donovan and Beckham… but I guess it doesn’t matter because i hate LA to begin with.

  20. Berlin

    July 15, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    In my humble and uneducated opinion, Donovan’s lack of leadership skills are part of the reason the Galaxy and USMNT have failed to succeed. When your best player is not a good leader and you try and force him to take that role, your team/organization/business/etc. is bound to fail. Sadly for the Gals they have two such individuals on their team (I mean that rhetorically of course, the LAGs tears make me smile out loud). Seriously though, Donovan needs the Cobi Jones and Brian McBrides of the world to give him guidance and sorry Becks, but there’s no such thing as leading from the rear.

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