No Donovan on U.S. team is no surprise

The U.S. men’s soccer team will head to Brazil without the player that many fans of the team have considered a lock for every lineup: Landon Donovan.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann reduced his 30-man provisional lineup to 23 and Donovan was one of the cuts.

The decision brings an end to a career that stretches back to the 2002 World Cup, when Donovan scored two goals in the team’s run to the quarterfinals, and stretched through the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with his last-minute goal against Algeria that pushed the U.S. into the knockout rounds.

Donovan hasn’t said if he will retire from international duty, and Klinsmann said on Friday that he expects him to return. If it doesn’t happen, Donovan will leave as this country’s all-time leading scorer (57 goals) and second to Cobi Jones in caps (156).

So why did Klinsmann make this decision?

It wasn’t shocking.

This has been my take on Donovan for many years, not supported by anything other my opinion:

Those who follow U.S. soccer exclusively think Donovan is world-class. After all, he’s played in three World Cups and leads the country in goals scored.

Those who follow any other league and national team with the exception of the U.S. think Donovan is world-class. After all, he’s played in three World Cup and leads the country in goals scored.

Those who watch the U.S., MLS and the rest of the world have thought Donovan was solid, but not consistently world class. His set-piece deliveries were inconsistent. He didn’t like to take on defenders on the dribble. He was a good passer. He was an OK defender.

By his own choice, Donovan never consistently challenged himself in any of the world’s top-five leagues. Separate stints in Germany didn’t work out. A very short spell in England did, but Donovan elected to stay in the U.S. rather than pursue a follow-up opportunity.

Even during his heyday with the U.S., Donovan would frequently disappear in the biggest games for long stretches. Watch the game against Algeria. There are times you don’t even know he is on the field. That wasn’t always true. He has had some very big moments for the U.S.  But it had to have played a part in Klinsmann’s decision.

And then came the decision that likely sealed his fate long before Klinsmann called in his 30-man provisional squad: Donovan’s sabbatical during last year’s World Cup qualifying games.

Instead of helping his team try to make it to the World Cup, Donovan elected to take off. He eventually returned and played a minor part in helping the U.S. qualify. He also helped the U.S. win the Gold Cup, but that competition was mostly B-quality, far less than what the U.S. will see in Brazil.

On top of that, he isn’t playing well for his MLS team Los Angeles, and has struggled with minor injuries.

ESPNFC quoted the team’s fitness coach as saying that Donovan was “working really hard. He’s been putting in good effort every single day.”

But he didn’t say that Donovan was healthy.

A player can’t be a half-step behind the others in the World Cup.

So inviting him to the 30-man squad may have been more of a nicety by Klinsmann, rather than a necessity.

Big-name stars are left off World Cup teams all the time. Argentina elected not to include striker Carlos Tevez. Nigeria won’t have Obafemi Martins. Those are just two of a long list of names.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. responds.

There are very few players that have World Cup experience on the roster, a point which has fueled speculation that this team is actually being picked for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Klinsmann is putting the players to the fire now, sacrificing this World Cup to improve the chances of playing well at the next. I’m not sure I believe that theory because World Cups are so rare and qualification isn’t a given.

Even if Donovan was on the roster, making it out of this Group of Death is going to be very tough. Germany and Portugal are top-three teams in FIFA’s rankings. Ghana, which is 3-0 against the U.S., is No. 38.

Of course, the goal is to win. Is the U.S. in a better position to win without Donovan? Obviously, Klinsmann thinks so.

The veterans have made it known that they value Donovan and expected him to be on the roster.He could still return if someone pulls up with an injury.

If he doesn’t return, will the veterans tune Klinsmann out? They had better not. His contract runs through 2018. Theirs runs only through the next game.

Donovan learned that lesson.

10 comments Add your comment


May 23rd, 2014
12:15 pm

I agree with your take on Donovan vanishing in games. He’s done that his entire career with the National Team. But, he normally rises up and provides a huge/memorable moment, despite being frustrating to watch sometimes.

I’m never going to be convinced that there are 23 players in the US better than Donovan. Klinsmann has had an issue with Donovan from the day he took over the job. I get the impression that he (Klinsmann) just wants to show that the team can be productive without Landon on the team. And, calling him up for the final 30 only to cut him a week or so into camp, is just a way to kick Donovan in the nuts one more time.

Also, looking at some of the other selections….Timmy Chandler? Wondolowski? Please….Klinsmann better get this team to play well in Brazil…otherwise, run him out of this country on a rail.

Logical Dude

May 23rd, 2014
12:38 pm

Klinsmann also somehow brings in four German players to play for the Americans.

That’s just iffy right there.

For Donovan’s position, it’s good to see such competition for the spot. Hopefully the team can kick it up a notch to proceed past the group stage.

I don’t quite see it the way Klinsmann does, but he’s the coach making the decisions and not me.

We’ll see how the US does in World Cup against world class competition. Having so few previous World Cup players (to me) works against the US. But I’ll still be rooting for them each game!


May 23rd, 2014
12:59 pm

That was hard to take, Donovan not making it, given all he’s done for the U.S. team. And it’s hard to imagine he might not be useful in spot roles, using guile, experience, and occasional bursts of speed, etc.

But Klinsmann was on a team that won the World Cup. He knows what it takes to win. And it looks like he went for toughness, athleticism and desire — guys who are all-in.

I hope he’s right, because if the U.S. lays an egg in Brazil, the second-guessing will be unmerciful.


May 23rd, 2014
2:52 pm

6 months ago before the selection to the Group of Death, Klinsmann did not know just how athletic his team needed to be. Yes we wanted to as many great players as he could get. But, with the GoD selection, in order to get out of it, he needed as much speed and quickness as possible. Thus a younger, faster but less experienced team. They will need every bit of that and more to get to the next round of play.


May 23rd, 2014
3:15 pm

It’s soccer.

US Soccer

May 23rd, 2014
3:41 pm

Have to agree with a lot of the points you made, but ultimately think it could hurt Klinsmann to not have LD on the roster. He was never going to start, but could definitely be an asset off the bench when we need someone to make a difference late in a game.

Also, very excited to have someone on the AJC staff that actually cares and follows the game. Great article and keep up the good work Doug. Hope you are still around in 2017 when the MLS team arrives.


May 23rd, 2014
3:44 pm

JMHO, but the US will surprise and Portugal (with the overrated Nani & Postiga and a banged up Ronaldo) will disappoint.

Can’t wait for kickoff :)


May 23rd, 2014
5:53 pm

Is Donovan world-class? No, but the only 2 players on the USMNT that stronger countries would want are Tim Howard and Michael Bradley.
There are several players going to Brazil that are not as good as Donovan. Klinsmann picked Altidore. Seriously?? Altidore had a terrible season in the BPL – he was dropped by a team fighting relegation.
Brad Davis? Same age as Donovan – never played in any major league and a less skillful player.
And then there is Julian Green. Someone whose total experience in a major football league was playing 2 minutes for Bayern in the Bundesliga.


May 23rd, 2014
5:59 pm

“But Klinsmann was on a team that won the World Cup. He knows what it takes to win. And it looks like he went for toughness, athleticism and desire — guys who are all-in.”
Diego Maradona was the reason for Argentina’s WC victory in 1986 – he was terrible as the coach of the 2010 team.

Doug Roberson

May 24th, 2014
9:58 am

Some great comments, folks.
It will be fascinating to see the lineups that Klinsmann chooses.