More than words
In the sporting world, it's not always easy to give or take constructive criticism. Yet Landon Donovan is forthright with his views, perhaps because he himself has often been under fire as well. His willingness to be vocal has had repercussions on both the national and club level.
The malaise that seems to have afflicted the Galaxy so far this year is best reflected in the team's second game of the 2006 MLS season. In that match, the Los Angeles Galaxy failed to win another game at home, giving up a late tying goal to the Chicago Fire.
After the match, Donovan was bothered by the decision-making that led to the goal and said as much when asked. Though he didn't name the defender involved, describing the play specifically put the blame on the second-year centerback, Ugo Ihemelu.
Donovan called a tackle by the player "stupid", pointing out the danger in fouling so close to the goal. He characterized it as an action that could go unpunished at the lower levels of soccer, like high school or college, but not at the pro level, where the skills of players are more developed to take advantage of such opportunities.
There's a traditional saying about defenders only getting noticed when they make mistakes. Ihemelu and his comrades on the backline had been pitching a shutout against a talented Fire team up to the point Jim Curtin scored.
In tight games where a single goal marks the difference, the slightest lapse can turn a game around, however.
"The most important thing is for him to understand his mistake," said Galaxy captain Pete Vagenas of Ihemelu. "I think he does."
"I trust Ugo," continued Vagenas, describing him as a "quality player."
Ihemelu isn't new to criticism, having dealt with some his rookie year as well.
"When I first came in, there was stuff said about me, about how I shouldn't have gotten drafted that high," he explained.
Becoming a regular starter with the team proved Ihemelu's worth. Despite some midseason difficulty, he rallied to finish the year strong, helping his team win the 2005 MLS Cup and Open championships. The national team took notice, and Ihemelu was invited to the first training camp of 2006, earning a cap for the U.S. with a sub appearance against Norway.
Not that it mattered after the Chicago game.
"I was called out by one of the guys," admitted Ihemelu of Donovan's statements. Yet he denied that the points Donovan made were any harsher than his own reprimands.
'I'm really hard on myself. It doesn't matter what anyone else says about me. I'm harder on myself than anybody can be on me."
Only a week after the game against Chicago, with the Galaxy struggling to overcome the one goal lead of Chivas USA, Ihemelu was again on the spot, as veteran defender Tyrone Marshall had to leave the game because of an injury.
"It's pressure," said Ihemelu of the situation. "I rely on Tyrone a lot. When he goes out, it forces me to step up a little bit more."
Keeping the ball out of the goal wasn't the only issue Ihemelu had at hand. Provoked at one point by a Chivas USA player, who motioned as if to spit on him, Ihemelu refused to retaliate.
"I've done some stupid things in the past," he admitted. "I'm trying just to stay focused and not do anything dumb by reacting to something like that. It would have hurt the team more."
With the defense holding strong, the Galaxy rallied. Donovan's two assists helped the team to a 2-1 victory.
"Ugo played great," praised Donovan after the Chivas USA game, giving credit to the defender's work. "That has to be the expectation. Ugo's good enough. He could be one of the best defenders in this league. He's got all the tools and he knows it. I'm proud of him."
"My standards are even higher than what everybody else expects from me," asserted Ihemelu. "I welcome the criticism. I welcome the pressure, because that's what makes people better. It's all good."
Though his own resume is one of the most impressive in U.S. soccer, Donovan has been on the receiving end of scrutiny as well. U.S. coach Bruce Arena, for example, mentioned after the team's most recent match against Jamaica that the playmaker was not in top midfield shape.
"Bruce was cracking on me. I get no respect from that guy," joked Donovan, before agreeing with the points made by Arena.
"No, it's true -- when you play up front, it's a different type of running. It's more explosive, then the quick recovery. In the midfield, it's constant movement. You always have to be jogging. It is a different game, but I'm getting better -- getting there."
Often the captain of the U.S. squad when Claudio Reyna is absent, Donovan has become more outspoken about team performances. After a scoreless tie against Canada to open 2006, he expressed disappointment in the energy and effort of the players. When a string of assured play and wins followed, he was again quick to commend the changes.
The spur to prove oneself when others are questioning or skeptical can be powerful.
Donovan probably understands that better than most. After his return to MLS from a short stint in Europe, Donovan was key to the U.S. team's World Cup qualification. He also helped lead the squad to a Gold Cup title, won the U.S. Open Cup with the Galaxy, and capped his year off with an MLS Cup victory that was especially meaningful.
"This one has been the most rewarding because I was used to everyone telling me how great I was and that I was a star, blah, blah," explained Donovan after the championship win.
He acknowledged that the disapproval he received upon leaving the Bundesliga's Bayer Leverkusen last year left him hungry to establish the value of his choosing MLS.
"I needed to validate myself and validate what I was doing and what my purpose is here. That's what makes it worthwhile."
There are limits to the impact either words or deeds can really have. Like many things, it comes down to how the statements or actions are perceived.
Some view Donovan's accomplishments in MLS as inconsequential, still questioning why he chose to return to a league that has a lower quality than the one he left.
"I can't change people," Donovan reflected. "Everyone has their own opinion."
It's not likely Donovan will become shy about articulating his. Not if an honest critique can prod the progress of MLS and its players along.
"I was a little hard on Ugo, but Ugo can handle it," explained Donovan. "He responded well. It's hard for me to complain, too, when we've scored three goals all year. So that's on me."
The Galaxy continue to struggle in their MLS campaign. The offense failed to score recently against the Columbus Crew. Since no team can win without goals, Donovan accepted blame there.
"That's a fair comment for people to make," he conceded.
The forward made a distinction, though, about the type of errors that bothered him most.
"If you make a mistake or make a bad pass, that's fine. Just don't make a stupid mistake."
"Ugo's young. I made worse mistakes at his age," he stated. "It's about learning."
While Ihemelu is actually only a year younger than Donovan, he is a second-year MLS player. Donovan is in his sixth year, so the veteran's tone comes with some validity.
"There's something different now about this league," explained a hopeful Donovan. "It grows constantly. It's not where we want it to be, but it's getting better."
Even clichéd sports phrases are more believable when brought up by an individual who is willing to discuss negative aspects as well. In a world of polite sound bites, it's refreshing to find someone willing to be candid, especially when they can admit to their own room for improvement as well.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org