Landon Donovan knows you are paying close attention to what he says about Jürgen Klinsmann. He understands it, expects it, and says that he can be critical of the U.S. National Team coach and its players when criticism is warranted.
The longtime face of American soccer was added by ESPN last week to provide commentary on the U.S. team after Fox and ESPN aggressively pursued him for a role following Klinsmann's option to not include Donovan on the U.S’s final 23-man roster for the World Cup. His TV appearances so far have netted mixed results. Donovan is a thoughtful interview but very low energy. He knows his sport cold but needs work in providing specifics for viewers rather than platitudes. (For example: Asked by World Cup host Bob Ley a layup question on Sunday about the final Portugal goal, Donovan told the audience the U.S. “fell asleep for one minute” but did not provide any specifics or tactics on what happened.)
But it’s unfair and, quite frankly, impossible to judge Donovan’s long-term broadcasting future on this assignment. First, this is all new to him. He's not getting a lot of time on camera and perhaps most importantly, he’s filming his segments at ESPN’s LA Live studios essentially in an empty room with one producer and a camera person. It is an inorganic setup and a difficult one to get any rhythm since he can't play off his colleagues in person.
Donovan said he’s watched his ESPN segments and he has a new appreciation for the job of analysts.
“I have been on the other side of this and I’ve had people say things about me that I did not appreciate,” Donovan said. “I’ve said to [ESPN analysts] Taylor [Twellman] and Alexi [Lalas] on different occasions that, 'I don’t appreciate what you said there.' Now being on the other side of it, you realize how difficult it is. You only have a few seconds to say something and every word matters. That's been a big learning curve. Every word that comes out of your mouth can be analyzed. It gives you a lot of respect for the people who have done it a long time and who are so good at it. This has been a very good learning process, especially that I am in a studio by myself speaking into a camera. It would have been much more comfortable to be on set and banter with other guys but this has been a good roadblock to get over.”
Broadcasting is certainly something Donovan is interested in following the conclusion of his soccer career, but he needed a few days to contemplate how public he wanted to be with his opinions after Klinsmann’s decision. He also asked himself: Can I be critical of former coaches and teammates?
"If I am playing in four years, that means we have not progressed enough ... I think it is better for our national team if I am not there." — Landon Donovan, on the likelihood he'll compete for the United States in the 2018 World Cup.
“I wasn’t sure that one, it was the right thing for me, and two, that I could do it in a way that was honest and critical if need be,” Donovan said. “As time wore on, the wounds started to heal a little bit and I thought about the bigger perspective. Who knows if I’ll ever get a chance to do something like this again? I’ve always thought it would be interesting to give insight on soccer because I have a lot of experience in my career. A lot of times I watch sporting events and there are things I want to say and things I see that don’t get said or talked about. I thought that would be a good thing to educate people. So I weighed the pros and cons and figured this is something I should do.
“I also really had to think about it because I have a lot of friends on the team and friends on the support staff," Donovan added. "I wanted to make sure I could do it in a way that was being true to myself and honest and satisfying to what ESPN wanted. They don’t want me going on there and being Mr. Positive all the time about everything when the reality is different. I had to make sure I was comfortable to speak honestly while still being compassionate for the fact I have a lot of close friends that are in Brazil right now.
"I’m a little bit mindful that if I am critical of Jürgen, a lot of people are going to perceive that as bitterness, and that is difficult for me because there are things I want to say but I want to make sure that it does not come off that way. It’s a balancing act. But I also want to be honest and positive on the good things. Obviously, Jürgen made fantastic substitutions against Ghana and he needs to get credit for that. I have to be able to be honest and be credible and I think I can say 'this guy did not have his best game today' rather than 'he is awful and I cannot believe he did that.'”
So far, there is little criticism to offer about Klinsmann, who has the U.S. on four points and a chance to win Group G with a win over Germany on Thursday. One small note on this subject: Donovan said that he has not yet heard from Jon Klinsmann, the 17-year-old son of Jürgen, who blasted Donovan on Twitter following news of the cut. But Donovan added, laughing, “I honestly haven’t thought about it since the day it came out.”
Donovan told SI.com that he is interested in working for ESPN for the knockout round and beyond if ESPN management is interested in keeping him. He has watched most of the games either at his home or ESPN’s LA studios, as well as at a local California bar with some friends. As for future broadcasting opportunities, he reiterated that it's something he’d like to pursue.
“Obviously I have to balance it with my real job, which is playing soccer,” said Donovan, who plays for MLS' Los Angeles Galaxy. “That takes priority now, but we have already had quite a few discussions with different people about post-career stuff. I’m not quite there yet, but it is good to know people are interested and I am hopeful that interest continues.”
I asked Donovan if he would give any consideration to attempting to play on the U.S. World Cup team in 2018. He was definitive with his answer.
“There are not many guys who play at 36 or over,” Donovan said. “I try to never say never, but at this point it is pretty unlikely that I would be a part of that team based on how my body feels and based on how good our team has been. If I am playing in four years, that means we have not progressed enough, to be quite honest. As much as I would love to be there and play in Russia, I think it is better for our national team if I am not there.”
THE NOISE REPORT
1. The official combined viewership between ESPN and Univision for Sunday's Portugal-U.S. match was 24.7 million viewers, making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history involving a U.S. team. Excluding college football and the NFL, it was also ESPN's most-viewed telecast ever. But the viewership number does not count the many watch parties across America as well as the hordes of people viewing in bars and restaurants. It is also absent of digital viewing. The real number is probably closer to 30 million. I did a piece on Monday that has some interesting ratings information on the match.
2. I asked Donovan what he thinks went wrong with Spain, the defending champs who were eliminated after two games in the Group Stage.
“My opinion is two-fold,” Donovan said. “One, the rest of the world is catching up, which makes you appreciate and respect them that much more. To gain that kind of advantage over the rest of the world for that course of time is so impressive. People have scouted them and watched them more than any other national team in the world because every coach wants to take their formula and do what they did. The other part is, and you saw it with England, these guys play 45 to 55 incredibly high-level games every year and not only do they do it for one year, but two, three, four, five or six years in a row. At some point, your body is going to wear down. Spain has played late in tournaments consistently over the last six to eight years and late into club seasons as well as for some players in the Champions League. Eventually you will get worn out and you can tell they had no pep or energy. They looked worn out, mentally and physically. They looked exhausted. I saw that with England, too."
2a. Who does Donovan consider the biggest surprise teams in the World Cup? He named Costa Rica and Chile.
“I know it’s early, but Costa Rica really impressed me and we've also seen that from them during qualifying,” Donovan said. “They are really well organized and they defend really well, and they are unbelievably dedicated to their team. When you have those three elements and you throw in a couple of quality players that can make some special plays and score a goal, then you have a chance to win. The other team that is more obvious is Chile. The way they swarm the ball and how organized they are. They are relentless. They went after Spain and they just go and go and go. Being in South America, they have a chance to do really well in the tournament."
2b. Donovan listed Charles Barkley and Jeff Van Gundy as sports analysts he really enjoys watching.
“I’ve also gained a lot of respect for hosts and specifically [ESPN's] Mike Tirico and Bob Ley on how they handle things and shuffle things on the move," Donovan said. "They have both been kind and gracious and gone of out of their way to make me feel comfortable, and I think that is why they [have been] in their position for so long.”
3. What makes ESPN play-by-play announcer Ian Darke a good soccer commentator? I asked Twellman, his partner on U.S. national team games.
“You mean 'Mr. Belvedere?'" Twellman said, referring to Christopher Hewett's character in the TV show of the same name that aired from 1985-1990. "I call him that because that is exactly how you feel sitting next to him when calling a game. There is almost a feeling of being at a bar with two microphones in front of us and calling what we see. He has an impeccable way of saying things at the perfect time. We have great chemistry both on and off the mic, which I find to be very important. We really only call a certain amount of games together [because] he is in England. One minor thing that I love is he raises questions in his call more for the viewer than for me which engages the viewer in a subtle way."
3a. Twellman had some significant travel issues in Brazil during his trip from Rio to Natal for the U.S.-Ghana game. The flight is normally 2.5 hours, but it took Darke and Twellman more than 16 hours, which included sitting in a bus terminal and flying over Rio for five hours.
4. We’ve seen ESPN use the opinions of its analysts to drive programming throughout the day across its networks. One of the most famous examples of this, as chronicled by then-Deadspin writer John Koblin, featured NFL analyst Ron Jaworski proclaiming that “Colin Kaepernick could be one of the greatest quarterbacks ever." I asked Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and director of news, if he believed that a comment from an ESPN analyst philosophically qualified as news.
“I think any time we have an analyst who has the credibility that so many of ours do have, depending on what they say and what they believe, it could easily be news or not based on what the question and what the answer is,” Bengtson said. “It's difficult to say, again, without a specific example, but I think in general if you have a high‑profile former athlete saying something of significance, that can become newsworthy.”
5. NBA TV’s postgame coverage following the series-clinching Game 5 of the NBA Finals averaged 515,000 viewers — the most-watched postgame show in the network’s history. The league said that NBA TV’s seven originally produced live game postseason telecasts averaged 720,000 total viewers.
5a. ESPN will air the NBA draft on Thursday (7:00 p.m. ET) with the following on-air talent: Rece Davis (host), Jay Bilas, Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons (analysts), Fran Fraschilla and Tom Penn (Insiders) and Chris Broussard, Heather Cox, Jeff Goodman and Andy Katz (reporters). ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Williams will conduct interviews with the picks after they are selected.