From the moment he was excluded from the U.S. World Cup roster, Landon Donovan faced a critical choice. He could accept, map out the rest of his playing career, and begin to work on his post-playing options. Or he could fight back, showing the world that his exclusion was long-term a poor choice for how the U.S. would create a new soccer structure. He chose the latter, but now with the U.S.’s World Cup behind them, he needs to make another choice that will determine long-term what will be the legacy of Landon Donovan.
During the World Cup, Donovan did his best to remain relevant in the U.S. soccer conversation. He starred in videos mocking his exclusion which went viral. He was an analyst for ESPN’s coverage, although that did not go quite as well. He offered an opinion with every microphone put in front of him, brewing up controversy (un)intentionally by admitting to cheering against the U.S. initially in a friendly after he was cut then questioning the tactics Klinsmann deployed against Belgium. During this time, the U.S.’s results were mixed, meaning Donovan has informally established himself as a leader of the anti-Klinsmann viewpoint.
Where, then, does that leave Landon Donovan’s soccer career? This may be the most interesting fall out of the U.S.’s World Cup run as there is no clear path to how he will remain completely relevant in the U.S. soccer structure.
In terms of his playing career, Donovan is wedded to MLS. Freed from being the face of American soccer, he could force a move overseas to once more try his hand at a higher level of soccer. However, because of his age and failure to play exceedingly well anywhere but Everton, his options may be limited for top flight soccer. Additionally, if Klinsmann is particularly vindictive, a negative recommendation or two could close even more doors. Donovan may be reduced to playing in a second division league in a top flight country or top league in a second tier country, which would help his soccer-playing legacy potentially but not keep him in the public eye. There are worst things then spending your last most productive days playing for Fulham or Milwall, but this has not been consistent with his modus operandi.
That means remaining in MLS, and likely retiring with Los Angeles. He could try to move to another team but few markets offer the advantages of location and media attention as the Galaxy. He could play anywhere – I suspect no team would turn down a chance to sign him – but depending on his post-playing career few offer the options that the LA scene does.
There is a further complication, however, that remaining in MLS holds. If the league continues to go all-in as marketing itself as the league that supports the national team (and having players like Jermaine Jones come into the league suggests this is the long-term strategy) then having the face of the anti-Klinsmann camp as your face of the league becomes problematic. I am not suggesting Klinsmann or the U.S. Soccer Federation would pressure MLS to stop marketing itself with Donovan, but the longer he is away from the national team and the more critical he is of the system being built, the less incentive there is to have him front-and-center on the website, emails, and billboards.
In terms of national team play, that dream is over. Even if he were to make-up with Klinsmann and say all the right things, his age and declining skills hurt his chances of making the squad for a major competitive tournament. He may get a token call-up to a few friendlies or even the 2015 Gold Cup if he plays REALLY nice, but I suspect that would be it forever. That part of his media image is gone.
So where does that leave the former Captain America both on the field and off? I see a few different routes he can go to establish a new image for himself post-2014 World Cup:
He can remain where he is and fade into obscurity slowly
This seems like the least likely proposition, but if he continues this path of playing for LA and offering an occasional jab at Klinsmann, this is what will happen.
He moves overseas to establish himself as proof that U.S. field players can thrive in Europe
Again, it is a bit of a gamble based on what is likely available to him, but he has the following that if he went to a club and was a major factor in leading them to, say, the promotion playoffs, he becomes relevant as the prime example that U.S. players can outgrow MLS. There are better examples, but none with the name recognition.
He can begin to focus on his post-playing career by taking media training while still playing
This option means he goes all-in as the face of the anti-Klinsmann crowd. While closing out his career with the Los Angeles Galaxy or another high-profile team, he spends time hiring and working with media and image consultants. He secures spots as an in-studio analyst for major tournaments and leagues, including the Premier League or Champions League.
As his TV presence improves, he becomes more recognizable and respected for his opinions and analysis, which leads to more opportunities to speak about the future of U.S. Soccer from an outsider’s perspective. Think Eric Wynalda, only less of a bomb-thrower and more mainstream.
If the U.S. underachieves in 2018 (whatever that looks like) he has positioned himself as the “prophet in the wilderness” who will then have sway to come in and rescue U.S. Soccer in time for the 2022 World Cup on our own soil (assuming of course Qatar is no longer a viable option). What that “rescue” looks like is unknown but he’d certainly be the prime candidate to figure out how.
He makes up with Klinsmann and begins his post-career transition to coaching
This is the most likely scenario as Donovan realizes that Kinsmann’s vision for this team will be long-lasting, and if he wants to have a post-career place in U.S. Soccer, he has to embrace this fact. He mends with Klinsmann and publicly backs his moves leading up to the 2018 World Cup. This allows new opportunities for him, such as coaching or serving as a director of development somewhere in a Klinsmann-influenced USSF. Absent a complete disaster in 2018 (or the lead-up), Donovan has positioned himself as an heir to the Klinsmann vision and can write his own path of success leading up to the 2022 Qatar-hosted World Cup.
If it can seemingly work for Hillary Clinton, why not Landon Donovan?
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