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Landon Donovan's impossible club vs. country dilemma

Why the timing of US Soccer's send-off game for Landon Donovan shows a complete lack of understanding for the man it is supposedly honoring.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Galaxy play FC Dallas on October 12th, a mere two games after Landon Donovan is set to appear for the USMNT in East Hartford, Connecticut in a "send off game" which has been hastily slapped together without a moment’s consideration for the player the game is supposedly honoring. This game takes place two days before the LA Galaxy have to play FC Dallas.

Getting a point in Dallas will likely be crucial to the Galaxy’s hope of winning the Supporters’ Shield and ensuring that Landon Donovan retires with yet another trophy. Unfortunately, US Soccer has its own plans to "honor" Donovan and doesn’t seem to mind meddling in a league race to do so.

The table is currently all square between the Sounders and the Galaxy, with a mere 3 games left to decide the shield. Mathematically, if the Sounders are able to get a victory over Vancouver, the Galaxy will need at least a point in Dallas to avoid needing the full 6 points in the final two games with Seattle—as a win and a tie would result in Seattle winning the shield on tiebreaker.

Is the US’s October 10th game against Ecuador a proper send-off for Landon Donovan? – no. The game was scheduled long before his retirement, and the whole send-off notion was a late gimmick concocted by Sunil Gulati; the timing of which could not be more inconsiderate to the player it is supposedly honoring. I would go so far as to say that it completely disrespects the spirit of Landon’s retirement as well as his personality as a whole.

When Landon Donovan was a young kid playing youth soccer, his mom gave him advice which he lives by to this day. He plays soccer because it is fun, and when it stops being fun, he always said he would stop playing—and that’s exactly what he is doing at the end of the year.

So why is soccer no longer fun for Landon? Anyone who has paid attention to the career of Landon Donovan knows that his career, at times, has been severely affected by mental stress. Landon has made no secret of this. In a recent interview with Grant Wahl, Landon’s thoughts in this late stage of his career are in total lock step with statements he’s made his entire career.

"Just like there are gay athletes in sports, just like there are athletes from different races and ethnicities, of course there are athletes that have mental issues, just like everyone else can have mental issues in society."

If you want further thoughts on the matter as well as a general background, it is something I covered extensively in this article.

When Landon Donovan went on hiatus, his reasons for doing so were strikingly similar to those he has given for his decision to retire at the end of this year. He was finding soccer more stressful than fun, and true to his mother’s advice, he decided to step away from the game on both occasions.

Another thing that Donovan has admitted to over the years is that the stress of having to live up to the expectations placed on him, and the accompanying obligations of being the golden boy of US Soccer, have been a part of the weight on his mind. Quotes from 2010 seem to suggest that he harbors some sort of underlying self blame for the US’s poor performance in the 2006 World Cup, for precisely this reason, stating: "In 2006, [the responsibility] became burdensome."

According to his statements to the press, Landon Donovan made his decision to retire prior to the Galaxy’s 3-0 defeat of Seattle in Seattle—a game which many Galaxy fans will note was the beginning of the team’s incredible turn around. It is also the season marker for Landon’s personal chance creation numbers which went from slightly over 1 per 90 in the previous handful of games to a rate that is approaching 4 per 90, since. And to what do we attribute this success? According to Landon, "the decision to retire and playing this way are intricately linked, and that’s giving me freedom to relax and enjoy it and it’s taking all the pressure off, and that’s when I play my best."

And this brings us back to Mr. Sunil Gulati’s decision to "honor" Landon on October 10th. As a result of this game, Landon Donovan now finds himself caught between two fan bases. In a town hall meeting with LA Galaxy fans, Donovan was candid in stating that he was hesitant about accepting the call up at first. In an interview with Grant Wahl, Donovan explained what led him to accept it. "The more I thought about it, the more I realized this was something that I think would be really special, not only for me to feel and receive, but also my opportunity to say thank you."

Landon Donovan has always been a gracious athlete, and given his personality, of course he will not deny a chance to pay back US Soccer fans for all the love and support they have given him over the years. On the other hand, this game is a meaningless friendly and scheduled a mere two games before a game in Dallas where LA will be playing without Marcelo Sarvas and Robbie Keane and will likely need to get a result if they want to win the Supporters’ Shield.

Landon Donovan sendoff meme

And when it comes to winning silverware for his club and the fans that support it, Landon Donovan has not been shy about stating his desires. "There’s nothing I would love more than to be on this field celebrating with my teammates in front of our fans at the end of the season," he told Grant Wahl. Bottom line, US Soccer is directly interfering with those desires. Furthermore, US Soccer is forcing Landon into a conflict of interest which brings about exactly the kind of soccer related stress that Landon is trying to retire from in the first place.

The federation is forcing Landon into an unnecessary choice: play a meaningful number of minutes in his send off game, thereby tiring himself for the game in Dallas two days later, or barely play at all, thereby giving the middle finger to the tens of thousands of fans who will pack that stadium to say goodbye to Landon Donovan. Club or country? Which fans mean more?

While Landon has stated he will be available for the Dallas game, consider his statements prior to the World Cup where he stated that his body isn’t able to recover as quickly as it used to. Now consider the sense of obligation he will feel to play in his own send-off game. And if you doubt the delicate nature of his current situation, consider the fact that he refused to answer questions on the matter after the Galaxy’s 3-0 defeat of Toronto FC.

In the end, Landon’s choice is a tough one, and as a fan of the Galaxy and the USMNT, I find it disrespectful that US Soccer is forcing him to make it. Landon Donovan deserves a send off game on his terms—free from the taint of stress and obligation that is causing him to leave the game in the first place. It isn’t in the spirit of Landon Donovan, and it isn’t the way we should be sending-off a man who meant so much.