BRISTOL, Conn. — Hours before his final game for the red, white and blue, Landon Donovan made no effort to hide his anger at Jurgen Klinsmann.
The face of American soccer for more than a decade, Donovan had been counting on going to his fourth World Cup.
And then after practice at Stanford Stadium on May 22, Klinsmann called in the 32-year-old forward and told him he wasn’t going to Brazil
Donovan was stunned and livid.
He recorded commercials poking fun at his exclusion, criticized Klinsmann’s tactics during the tournament and was reluctant to accept an offer from U.S. Soccer Federation Sunil Gulati to play a celebratory finale for the national team.
Ultimately, Donovan accepted and made his 157th international appearance in an exhibition against Ecuador on Oct. 10th. He hit a post, left in the 41st minute and exchanged a handshake and a soft hug with the coach when he left the game that ended in a 1-1 tie.
Looking back, Donovan thinks getting axed benefited him in an unexpected manner.
“Although I didn’t agree with the decision and I still know I should have been there, it was also good for me to say, you know what, it’s not always going to go your way,” he said. “And it took time for me to get to that place. I’m human. I had some very real emotions after. But after a while I said: Maybe this is a going to be a good thing. And I wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow had it not happened. I certainly grew a lot more by that happening than if I had gone to the World Cup and played there, and in that way you can learn a lot from it.
“I had the opportunity to feel what other players have felt in my career. A lot of times when I made a team I was so happy for me that I forgot about the guy who got cut, so for the first time it kind of put that in front of my face.”
Gulati sat at Donovan’s side during a half-hour pre-game news conference on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight set, about 20 miles from Rentschler Field, and maintained his refusal to comment on Klinsmann’s decision.
Without Donovan, the U.S. advanced from a difficult first-round group by defeating Ghana, drawing Portugal and losing to Germany. The Americans were knocked out with a 2-1 overtime loss to Belgium, and the Oct. 10 match was their first at home since leaving Brazil.
“Three, four months ago, if someone asked if this day would happen, I would have said you’re out of your mind and you’re crazy,” Donovan said. “I give all the credit to Sunil for sticking with me through some hard conversations and understanding what was important and making it happen.
“I believe this is a day I deserve. I believe this is a day my family deserves for all the sacrifices they’ve made.”
Donovan anticipated 20 family members would attend, and he said the USSF had treated them “like kings and queens” this week. It helped to alleviate some of his vexation.
” People forget, for those of us who weren’t selected this summer to play in Brazil, it’s not only difficult for us, it’s difficult for our families,” he said. “In many instances, our families had this amazing vacation trip of a lifetime planned, and that was taken from them.”
The Los Angeles Galaxy forward, the American career leader in international goals (57) and assists (58), is retiring at the end of the Major League Soccer season.
Donovan played in all 12 U.S. games at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 World Cups, scoring an American-record five goals. His stoppage-time winner against Algeria four years ago gave the U.S. first place in its group for the first time in 80 years and created one of American soccer’s iconic moments.
Asked about his relationship with Klinsmann, all Donovan would say is: “You know.” It took him awhile to accept Gulati’s offer of a testimonial match.
“The thought of being in this environment again didn’t seem all that appealing at the time,” Donovan said. “But at the end of the day I looked at the big picture and realized what a special day this could be. It’s almost like, if you care to believe this stuff, in many ways it’s meant to be. I think it’s no coincidence it’s 10-10 today.”
Donovan took over the No. 10 jersey following captain Claudio Reyna’s retirement in 2006. But for all Donovan’s accomplishments, Klinsmann said he wished Donovan “could have done a bit more” and established a career with a European club rather than remain in MLS.
“I think it’s easy for people to judge others in their career choices and their life choices,” Donovan said. “I’ve always tried to make decisions that were best for me and best for my family and best for my happiness. I realize that’s not always popular with people. I’m sure a lot of people wish my career had gone a different way.”
Donovan took a four-month sabbatical from soccer after the 2012 season, a decision that strained his relationship with Klinsmann, who believes top players should train virtually year-round. Donovan needed time away — he has been open about his struggles with depression.
“It’s human nature to have sad periods in life,” he said. “I would much rather feel than not feel things and to go through some of the things we as human beings go through. It’s normal to feel that way.”
He’s not quite sure what awaits. Attending college and travel are among the possibilities. He’ll remain involved with the USSF, but how he’s not sure.
Coaching intrigues him, but not pros. Perhaps the under-17 team, the level where he first gained world-wide attention in 1999.
“I wouldn’t want to deal with male soccer egos. That’s a headache that I think nobody would want, even though some coaches take it on,” he said. “I think being able to really be hands on early in people’s careers would be helpful, because that’s where I needed the most help.”
(RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer)