Landon Donovan, one of the three greatest American soccer players of all time by any measure, finds himself in an awkward position. Cut by USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann, Donovan was just hired by ESPN as a World Cup analyst.
Simply put, Donovan should not be working with ESPN for the World Cup.
Be it during previous World Cups, their time as the Premier League carrier, or even with the MLS, ESPN’s soccer coverage has always been one of its strong suits. ESPN’s soccer coverage (along with ABC during the WC) is one of few remaining bastions of high quality studio programming, featuring fine on-air talent plucked from all over the globe.
Viewers trust Bob Ley and Mike Tirico. The potpourri of international analysts ensures that any biases will be canceled out. There’s no screaming, shouting, or pandering. It’s a professional studio crew that viewers—many of whom are not experts—can trust to enhance the telecast.
That’s not to say that Donovan will be a talking head, there solely to dumb things down, raise his voice, and create false narratives. His presence does, however, diminish the broadcast’s credibility, as viewers risk being fed the feelings of a scorned lover rather than a prepared, open-minded observer (to be clear, he won’t be in Brazil, but rather, in Los Angeles).
During ESPN’s World Cup preview show, the studio threw it to Donovan in regards to Klinsmann’s insistence that the US cannot win the whole thing. Donovan said he disagrees with Klinsmann, agrees with the American Outlaws (who’ve apparently replaced Sam’s Army as the leading soccer fanatics from America), and believes the US has a chance to win.
Only, when he said he disagreed with Klinsmann, it was something like “This is no surprise…” and with a chuckle. Not to get uptight about this, because it’s soccer and television and not life and death, but it was clear that Donovan was going to disagree with Klinsmann on principle alone. Just knowing the recent history, we’ll need to take much of what Donovan says with large grains of salt. It’s no fault of his own—he has every right to say what he feels. ESPN is the one putting him on television for the world to see. Donovan seems too classy to air any dirty laundry during such an important event, but I wouldn’t put it past him to skew his analysis in an anti-Klinsmann direction.
It’s a bit awkward, as well. We know he’s probably still good enough to make the team. We also know he didn’t put in the work and made those statements about taking a break. It’s one thing if Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt says he’s over the drama and wants to take a break, only to come back shortly before Olympic trials. It’s another for the USMNT to have a program requiring continual participation and commitment. Instead of Donovan on the field for the US, he’s in the studio, as we watch uncomfortably, wondering what he’d really like to say about Klinsmann.
Isn’t he going to feel a bit weird about things, too? Not to say he should be embarrassed to be on television rather than playing, but why subject himself to covering the team he wants to play for? Again, he seems like a classy guy who can handle it, and maybe he deserves kudos for attempting to put his feelings aside, doing the broadcasting job, and sharing his knowledge with fans. That is, if he’s able to leave feelings and grudges out of the job.
Conceptually, though, it’s not a good idea. Donovan could prove otherwise and bring a unique perspective along with intelligent points. The fear is that he’ll be an ESPN hand puppet, there to play cheerleader for the USMNT, second-guess Klinsmann, and regurgitate whatever the popular narrative is that day. The hope is that he’ll be allowed to dish on things other than American soccer and lend insight into other groups, teams, and players. Let’s watch Donovan discuss Spain’s Starting XI and who England should pair with Rooney rather than something banal like “where the US went wrong.”
He may not have a chance to prove himself on the pitch during the World Cup, but thanks to ESPN’s bold yet injudicious hire, Landon Donovan will have something to prove on television.