When Landon Donovan spoke up last October about needing a break from the game of soccer due to physical and mental exhaustion, it took a lot of people by surprise. Donovan was still in the prime of his career, had been named to the MLS’ best XI (basically, the league’s All-Pro team) and was on his way to winning a second consecutive MLS championship with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
For many, it was a sign that the old criticisms of Donovan (he’s spoiled, he’s soft, he’s weak) were true. For others, it was hard to fathom why he would step away from the game for an indefinite amount of time.
U.S. men’s national team manager Juergen Klinsmann was among those frustrated with Donovan’s decision. The break would coincide with the final round of World Cup qualifying, and not having the veteran forward, who is easily one of the team’s top players, would only make Klinsmann’s job that much harder.
Anyone who took the time to listen to Donovan, however, wasn’t as confused as to why he wanted to take a break.
“I need time where I can just pause, and breathe and rest, let my body heal, let my mind refresh, and I think at that point, I’ll be excited to play again,” Donovan told ESPN back in October.
Donovan was burnt out from playing soccer non-stop for three years. After his season finished in the MLS, Donovan played for Everton in the English Premier League in both 2010 and 2012 along with the USMNT in their run-up to the 2010 World Cup where he would score arguably one of the most famous goals in U.S. soccer history.
More Important than a Game
Somewhat lost in all the confusion and frustration over Donovan’s choice to take a break from soccer was the message behind the decision. Donovan’s comments were valuable, not because of what they said about the world of athletics, but because of what they said about the way we view mental health problems in our country. Donovan elaborated on his earlier comments when he spoke to reporters on March 28th, a few days before his first game back.
“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable,” he said. “We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it,’ and all this, and it’s a little peculiar to me, that whole idea, that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with letting them take the time they need to come back. Hopefully, there’s at least a few people out in the world that can relate to this and can somewhat be inspired.
“That doesn’t mean that everybody should just be lazy and go take as much time as they need and go do whatever they want in life. Obviously, there’s points [sic] in your life that’s difficult. But if you’re really at a place where you’re struggling mentally, we need to be more compassionate and understanding of people in all walks of life and understand that they might need time away, too.”
It’s rare to see an athlete break from the banal post or pregame script filled with clichés and when they do it’s often to say something outlandish as a means to grab attention. Yet, Donovan’s comments here are neither. Rather, his comments are enlightening and refreshing both because they come from a profession where it’s often seen as a sign of weakness to admit such things, and also because he has the courage to speak out about a real issue in our country.
Whether you agree with Donovan or not (and, to be clear, this writer does), at the very least, you have to respect him for doing something so many athletes (and most non-athletes, for that matter) are reluctant to do.
On March 30th, Donovan played in his first competitive match since the 2012 MLS final. He would play in the final half hour as the Galaxy drew 2-2 with Toronto FC.
Already, speculation has begun about his role with the USMNT as they continue their quest to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Klinsmann has clearly begun to favor younger players and Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi, who has slid into Donovan’s role, has played well so far in qualifying.
While the U.S. has fared decently in Donovan’s absence, having lost away to Honduras but also picking up a crucial home win vs. Costa Rica and a hard-earned point in a draw at Mexico, the team simply doesn’t have a player like Donovan on its current roster.
Zusi and others make for nice fill-ins, but no player has the game-breaking potential of Donovan. Under former manager Bob Bradley, whose strategy was dogged defense combined with quick counterattacks, Donovan’s ability to lead the fast break was sublime. Bringing back that dimension to a U.S. offense that has been lackluster would be huge for the team moving forward.
Donovan isn’t just a counter puncher, either. The veteran forward has scored 49 goals for the USMNT (the most ever) and contributed 48 assists (more than doubling the second place total of Cobi Jones). Having Donovan up front would make opposing countries shift their defense toward him, opening up the field for players like Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
Is This It?
While it’s likely that Donovan returns to the USMNT, it’s certainly not a given. His decision clearly didn’t sit well with Klinsmann and many of his teammates appeared to move on when he announced his initial decision to step away from the game.
“In his life he feels that he needs a little time to recover and figure out what comes next,” Michael Bradley told FIFA.com. “At the same time, though, the game never stops. We’re determined to use the group of guys we have to step out on the field and do everything to get to the World Cup.”
Donovan will need to get into form with the Galaxy before and if he is invited back to the USMNT and will then have to compete with players like Zusi for playing time. With his passion for the game rediscovered after his break, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against Donovan being able to reclaim his role.
If we’ve learned anything from Donovan’s absence, though, it’s that we need to remember that our professional life needs to take a back seat to our mental and physical well-being.
“People just miss the point,” Donovan said six years ago when he joined the MLS after a dreary period in Germany. “I just want to be happy.”
After hearing Landon Donovan’s story, it’s hard to imagine anyone else not wanting that too.
Charlie Crespo (@Little_Utopia) is the editor-in-chief of Little Utopia.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
♦ Lionel Messi Battles the Robot Keeper
♦ Beertopia: Rogue’s Bacon Maple Ale
♦ Kim Kardashian is Really Bad at Acting (But She Doesn’t Care)
♦ How Did “This is the End” Get So Many Famous People in One Movie?
♦ Syfy’s Robot Combat League