Landon Donovan: For the man he’s become, it’s time to move on

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PORTLAND, Ore. — “Yes, I have played in games like that before,” he quipped, jumping on my mistake while trying to defuse the question. After MLS’s victory in a contentious All-Star Game, I’d asked about the second half’s intensity – a tone that drew the ire of Pep Guardiola. When I didn’t specify “All-Star Games” (merely asking about “games”), Donovan seized on the moment.

It’s the latest version of the story we’ve heard over the last five years: Landon Donovan just is not the same person. As a young player cast into the heat of U.S. Soccer’s (then) narrow spotlight, Donovan played the part of the reserved icon – a clichéd role that would prove soul-sucking for all but the grotesquely cynical.

Now, he can joke. He can prod. He can seize on a slip at the end of an interview. Maturation and changes in his personal life caused a turn four years ago. What emerged from an emotional World Cup and some time away from the game was an honesty that was refreshing from such an entrenched star.

[ RELATED: Donovan to retire at the end of the 2014 season ]

If Donovan was cautious before, perhaps rightly concerned his views that would be dissected ad nauseam, the new Landon was more confident: comfortable correcting a false assumption; personable enough to avoid offense. He was endearing enough to win misgiven hearts, yet flawed enough to endear empathy. If the media’s fawned over the new man, they weren’t the only ones. Everybody could empathize with the new Landon Donovan.

He is now an elder statesman, as much as any 32-year-old could ever be. He could pass judgment on the landscape with the authority of a legend, one whose honesty and fairness underscored his transformation. Whereas the pro forma approach of his prime showed greater deference, Donovan had evolved into a voice. Right or wrong, he had earned our trust.

That was most evident in May, when he was excluded from what could have been his last World Cup. As the U.S. soccer world exploded around him — expressing the rage of a fanbase that’d followed him into their own soccer primes — Donovan presented calm, even while expressing clear dissent.

No, he didn’t see the same world as Jurgen Klinsmann, and yes, he thought he should be in Brazil. But he wasn’t going to lead a revolt. It was just the latest, albeit unfortunate, stop along his road, one that wouldn’t stop him from being the clear, open player he’d evolved into. I’m not going to Brazil, and that’s heart-breaking, but tomorrow comes, regardless.

[ RELATED: Open letter explains Donovan’s retirement ]

There’ll be a lot of talk about that World Cup snub. Donovan may downplay its part, but don’t be too cynical when he does. For as much as his international self was part of his identify, it’s hard to reconcile a Donovan that wants to play soccer walking away merely because of a diminished role with the U.S. Though the World Cup was an obvious goal, playing for the national team hasn’t been a significant part of his life since returning from Cambodia. At some level, while being a “mere” All-Star for Los Angeles, Donovan just wanted to play soccer.

And now, he doesn’t. At least, he doesn’t want to play as much. Turning 33 next March, Donovan’s decision may be less about the U.S. and more about what’s left to accomplish. More MLS Cups? Another few All-Star Games? More records, though he already has the league’s most prestigious ones? At what point does the treadmill break down? In that light, he may have called time on his career after the World Cup regardless.

For today’s Donovan, there are other things to do. There’s family. There’s travel. There’s a life without all the externalities of a professional’s existence. For the most famous player in U.S. soccer history, there’s a whole other part of the soccer world, one he may not have recognized five years ago.

For the person he’s become, the person that’s already checked off so many boxes in that soccer world, it’s time to move on. That he wants to should be reason enough for us.

Southgate praises rising star, possible no. 1 Pickford

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With fewer than three months to the start of the 2018 World Cup, the majority of Gareth Southgate‘s England squad has largely sorted itself over the course of the current Premier League season.

[ MORE: New USMNT kits for 2018 World Cup ]

With everyone healthy and available — a big ask, granted — the likes of Kyle Walker, John Stones, Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Eric Dier, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane practically pick themselves for the starting 11, with Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy having secured significant roles off the bench.

One position, however, which remains far from set in stone is the man in goal. Joe Hart has long since fallen from his former place as the cemented no. 1, meanwhile Jack Butland and Fraser Forster failed to make the most of their sporadic chances over the course of the last couple years.

[ MORE: France blow a lead, lose to Colombia; England top Holland ]

Enter: Jordan Pickford, who started and played all 90 minutes — and massively impressed Southgate — in the Three Lions’ 1-0 victory over Holland. Southgate singled out the 24-year-old Everton goalkeeper for praise following the game, remarking that Pickford’s ability to start the process of playing the ball out of the back “allows [England] to play in a different way” — quotes from BT Sport:

“He transferred what we know he can do into an important game, a game away from home, so that was good for him.

“I think (it was) not the test that we faced in November (friendlies against Germany and Brazil) in terms of the pressure on our defense and the experience of the players.

“But, nevertheless, I think that’s 11 clean sheets from our 16 games and that gives us a good base to build from.”

“I think it allows you to play in a different way. There are moments where the goalkeeper or a defender can come and put the ball into the stand or play it forward hopefully.

“But if you can play with composure and play through and out of pressure then it (eases) off the opposition in terms of their pressure and eventually they stop running and you have more time in different areas of the field. The profile of all of that defense and goalkeeper allowed us to do that.”

Don’t look now, but this appears to be the most settled and established England side heading into a major tournament… well, probably in my lifetime. What if England are good — or, worse — really good?

Like clockwork, top goalkeepers criticize new World Cup ball

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It’s a tradition as old as time — the union of top goalkeepers from all over the world, no matter the continent from which they hail, complaining about the new ball to be used at the upcoming World Cup.

[ MORE: New USMNT kits for 2018 World Cup ]

By the end of this summer’s tournament in Russia, you’ll reflexively twitch every time you hear the words “Telstar 18.” Goalkeepers will tell you that it’s designed to deceive them, to boost goalscoring numbers during major tournaments.

Below you’ll find the critical, but restrained so as not to offend, assessments of goalkeepers David De Gea (Spain’s no. 1), Marc-Andre ter Stegen (Germany’s no. 1b) and Pepe Reina (De Gea’s wily backup) — quotes from FourFourTwo:

“It’s really strange. It could have been made a lot better.”

“The ball could be better; it moves a lot. But I think we’re just going to have to get used to working with it — and try to get to grips with it as quickly as possible before the World Cup starts. We’ve got no other option.”

“They should change it. There’s still time.”

[ MORE: France blow a lead, lose to Colombia; England top Holland ]

Unsurprisingly, top attacking stars — those who presumably stand to benefit from a ball that unpredictably moves on goalkeepers — have given their seal of approval for Telstar 18.

MLS (afternoon) roundup: NYCFC come back vs. NE; FCD, POR stalemate

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) Ismael Tajouri scored two goals and Sean Johnson had five saves to help New York City FC play the New England Revolution to a 2-2 draw Saturday.

The 23-year-old Tajouri, who has appeared in four MLS games, has three goals in the last two matches while filling in for the injured David Villa.

Yangel Herrera threaded a pass between two defenders to Tajouri, who turned and blasted a rising left-footer into the net to cap the scoring in the 76th minute.

Diego Fagundez bent a shot from well outside the box off the post to give New England (1-1-1) a 1-0 lead in the 11th. Tajouri tied it early in the second half, first-timing a cross from Saad Abdul-Salaam past a diving Matt Turner from near the penalty spot and Juan Agudelo’s header in the 63rd put the Revolution back in front. Cristian Penilla played a perfect cross from the left side to Agudelo who finished from the top of the 6-yard box.

NYCFC (4-0-0) is off to its best start in history and has won a franchise-record five in a row, dating to the 2017 playoffs.

FRISCO, Texas (AP) Roland Lamah scored his third goal in two games and Jimmy Maurer had a career-high five saves in FC Dallas’ 1-1 tie with the Portland Timbers on Saturday.

Lamah, who had two goals and an assists in FC Dallas’ 3-0 win over Seattle on Sunday, opened the scoring in the 36th minute. Jacori Hayes evaded two defenders and then tapped it to Lamah, who rolled a left-footer past a diving Jake Gleeson into the net from the top of the penalty arc.

Sebastian Blanco side-netted a left-footer from the top of the box to tie it in the 47th.

FC Dallas (1-0-2) is unbeaten in its last nine home matches.

Lawrence Olum, who was shown a yellow card for unsporting behavior in the 44th minute, drew a red for a hand ball in the 75th for Portland (0-2-1).

Report: PSG pressing Conte to leave Chelsea this summer

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First, Paris Saint-Germain (reportedly) wanted Mauricio Pochettino; then it was (reportedly) Diego Simeone; now it’s Antonio Conte who’s (you guessed it — reportedly) been targeted for, and pitched, an exit from Chelsea this summer.

[ MORE: Conte, Pirlo could spearhead Italy managerial team ]

According to a report from the Guardian, PSG executives have held talks with Conte’s agent in recent days and/or weeks, as the winners of four of the last five Ligue 1 titles prepare to move on from current manager Unai Emery this summer.

The belief in the French capital is that Conte, who’s made no bones about his frustrations at Chelsea dating back to last summer, would be a far more realistic target for that reason. According to the report, PSG are willing to offer Conte an annual salary in the neighborhood of $14 million. The Italian is currently paid nearly $13.5 million per year at Chelsea.

Conte has been at odds with the Chelsea hierarchy, largely, over the lack of funds made available to him to rebuild the squad in the transfer market.

“I have great ambition but I don’t have money for Chelsea. The club knows very well what is my idea, what is my ambition. That is very clear. When you decide to work with this type of coach, you must understand that you take a coach with great ambition. Not a loser but a winner. And that ambition must always be shared.”

[ MORE: Man City, Man United reportedly chasing Neymar ]

Talks are said to have been “positive” between Conte’s representative and PSG.

PSG’s motivation to fire Emery stems from the Spaniard’s failure to impress in European competition — two round-of-16 exits from the Champions League, one either side of the massive spending spree of last summer which resulted in Neymar and Kylian Mbappe moving to the Parc des Princes.