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.