10614_isi_donovanklinsmann_usmnt061112dz106 Douglas Zimmerman/isiphotos.com

Donovan Deserves A Special Send-Off. Will He Get It?

American Soccer Now contributing editor Brooke Tunstall isn't exactly thrilled with today's roster announcement for Landon Donovan's send-off match. He explains why below.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
October 06, 2014
3:02 PM
LITTLE ABOUT USING Friday’s friendly between the United States and Ecuador as a send-off for Landon Donovan feels right. Instead it feels like something U.S. Soccer thinks it should do, but doesn’t necessarily want to do.

And exacerbating this feeling of a bungled opportunity to honor the greatest American player ever is a U.S. roster announced today that is limited because of Major League Soccer’s refusal to stop league play on FIFA match-days.

No player has meant more to both MLS and the U.S. national team than Donovan and yet their attempts to honor him feel instead like a back-handed compliment. Simply put, for all he has done for both of them, Donovan deserves better.

The idea of using Friday’s game at Rentschler Field in Hartford as a testimonial for the retiring Donovan already seemed rushed and awkward given the frostiness between Donovan and U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who infamously dropped Donovan from the roster he took to the World Cup this year.

But after Donovan announced in August that this will be his final season of pro soccer, calls for a national team send-off match, or testimonial as the Brits call them, grew. This isn’t something U.S. Soccer usually does at all; the last American player to get a send-off match was Thomas Dooley in 1999. Eddie Pope, Eric Wynalda, Kasey Keller, Tab Ramos, Brian McBride, Paul Caligiuri, et al never got one.

But U.S. Soccer agreed to use the Ecuador match, which was already scheduled, to honor Donovan, the national team’s all-time leader in goals and assists. That’s why Donovan, a Southern California kid who has spent his entire domestic career playing for teams on the left coast and is a notorious lover of sunshine, is having his testimonial match in Connecticut in the fall.

New England is beautiful this time of year but since a leaf-peeping tour probably isn’t on the agenda, the idea of having Donovan playing his testimonial match a continent away from family and friends and Galaxy fans seems poorly thought out.

This isn’t to suggest U.S. Soccer won’t do more to honor Donovan. To its credit, the federation does big events well and I suspect on gameday there will be a nice video re-cap of his career with highlights of his biggest moments and, hopefully, comments from former teammates and coaches and a pre-game ceremony where he’ll get some lovely parting gifts.

In terms of the ceremony itself, I have little doubt it will be very well done. But the match itself….

First off, there’s the opponent. While Donovan did score a 2007 hat trick against them in a friendly, Ecuador isn’t exactly a team with which most of us associate Donovan. A CONCACAF rival, ideally Mexico, would have been much more appropriate. Granted, more goes into planning a friendly than most realize but given that Soccer United Marketing—a branch of MLS—promotes Mexico games in the United States it’s hard to imagine a friendly in Southern California later this year couldn’t have been arranged—and been both more appropriate as a Donovan send-off and been financially lucrative for all parties.

And then there’s the roster and what jumps out at you is who isn’t on it. DaMarcus Beasley and Kyle Beckerman have been teammates with Donovan since the Backstreet Boys were popular and none of us had ever heard of Monica Lewinski and we still used VCRs. They go back a long way together and are among Donovan’s closest friends in soccer that are still playing.

They’re both coming off solid showings at the World Cup and yet they aren’t included in what is supposed to be a testimonial to Donovan. Beasley’s Houston Dynamo play twice this week as they scramble for a playoff spot and Beckerman and Real Salt Lake have a key game Saturday as they look to avoid fourth place and the extra playoff round that comes with finishing outside the top three.

MLS conflicts explain why other long-time Donovan teammates like Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey are also absent for his testimonial. Instead, at his farewell game, Donovan’s teammates will include players he’s likely meeting for the first time or barely knows, like Joe Gyau, Bobby Wood, and Alfredo Morales. All of them are worthy call-ups but Donovan’s testimonial should have included more players who could actually, ya know, testify about him.

But it’s not just the Donovan’s testimonial that is impacted by MLS’ insistence at playing through FIFA match days, when leagues all around the rest of the world stop play while players are away on national team duty. It also impacts the caliber of player who is being evaluated by Klinsmann and punishes MLS players who have earned call-ups with solid play for their clubs.

I have never seen Miguel Ibarra of the second division NASL’s Minnesota United play and am willing to take Klinsmann’s word for it that a player that 19 MLS teams passed over for two seasons might be able to play for the U.S. national team. Stranger things have happened and it’s not like MLS scouting and player evaluation has a spotless track record.

But there’s no way I’m convinced that Ibarra is more deserving of a national team call-up than Lee Nguyen, Luis Silva, or Gyasi Zardes, all of whom are in double figures in goals in MLS this year. But all of them have MLS games this weekend and Klinsmann deferred to their coaches by not calling them in during the playoff crunch, meaning the players lose out on a shot with the U.S. and Klinsmann loses out on a chance to evaluate them.

Of course, there are also times when the matches aren’t friendlies and Klinsmann doesn’t defer and calls up all the MLS players he wants and leaves the clubs short-handed of their best players. And foreign national teams aren’t usually deferential at all to MLS clubs’ wishes and call up players during every FIFA date. And yet MLS plays on, leaving fans to pay full price to watch back-ups and having games decided by reserves instead of the teams’ best healthy players.

That’s no way to run a league. A great way to actually honor Donovan, who has done more for MLS credibility than any other player not named Beckham (and we can argue if he did more), would be to announce that beginning next year MLS will no longer play through FIFA match days.

Finally, we learned of even more awkwardness and weirdness with regards to this match as Klinsmann let it slip Monday that Donovan won’t even be training with the U.S. for most of the week. Buried in a platitude-filled interview conducted by U.S. Soccer and posted on its website, Klinsmann said that Donovan won’t be arriving in Hartford until Thursday, a day before the match.

I get having the guest of honor make a dramatic late entrance but are we really having him play with a bunch of players he doesn’t know very well and only give them one day of training together?

That’s not exactly going to dissipate the tension between Donovan and Klinsmann and it just adds to the notion that Donovan’s send-off is more an obligation than a celebration. Instead of a festive atmosphere for the greatest male American player, the match feels like going to a kid's birthday party hosted by a divorcing couple with all the tension that would come with it.

For all he did for Major League Soccer, the U.S. national team and American soccer in general, Donovan deserves better.

That's what I think. What do you think? Express yourself in the Comments section below.

Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.

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