Count me among those who were a bit stunned by the decision of coach Jurgen Klinsmann to drop Landon Donovan from the United States Men’s National Soccer Team roster just weeks before the start of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Many have said Donovan is the “face” of U.S. soccer, having made his first World Cup team as a 19-year-old in 2002 and playing in two more World Cups since then. Donovan has since gone on to score some of the biggest goals in U.S. soccer history, none bigger than his game winner against Algeria in the final seconds in the last game of group play in the 2010 World Cup, a goal that went viral as video after video showed American fans erupting in living rooms and bars around the world.
While I was shocked, that doesn’t mean I disagree with the decision. Unlike others who believe Donovan should be on the roster simply because he is Donovan and the face of the sport in the U.S., I believe Klinsmann made the tough decision based on what he has seen in training camp.
And to be perfectly honest, it’s much easier to side with Klinsmann than Donovan. Klinsmann was a hero for the West Germany and Germany national teams and one of the all-time greats — whose teams I rooted for growing up and is still my second-favorite behind the U.S. Donovan is not even the best player on this continent.
Donovan has 57 goals in 154 international games, including five in three World Cups. But is the U.S. team much better now than when he first came on the scene in 2002? Probably, but in 2002, there were no expectations. Hopes are now exponentially higher and I don’t think Donovan has pulled the rest of the team up to meet those dreams.
Sure, it’s not fair to put all of the team’s disappointments on Donovan — just as it’s not fair to put on their accomplishments on his shoulders either. Soccer is the ultimate team game and the entire squad shares in a team’s success and failures.
But let’s examine the possible reasons Donovan was left off the team. Politics can’t be ruled out. I think Klinsmann was more than a bit miffed when Donovan took a sabbatical last year, saying he had to rediscover his passion for the game. For a player and coach of Klinsmann’s caliber, this had to have rubbed him the wrong way — big time. Donovan’s decision to take a break from soccer meant he would have to work twice as hard to get back into Klinsmann’s good graces.
And let’s face it: Donovan has clearly lost a step. Last season, he scored 10 goals and notched nine assists. In seven games with the L.A. Galaxy this season, he has two assists and no goals. Not exactly on fire or in a groove heading to Brazil.
I think the bigger reason Donovan was left off the squad is simply because Klinsmann likes his other options better. Donovan’s biggest asset is his versatility. He can play any number of positions on offense. But for the World Cup, players need to have clearly defined roles. What is Donovan? Is he a striker? An attacking or holding midfielder? A wing? These are all positions Donovan has played and, while he is good at all, he is not great at any.
Donovan was not going to make or break the Americans’ chances in Brazil next month. In fact, not many are expecting the U.S. to even make it out of the group stage, facing the likes of Ghana — which has eliminated the U.S. in the last two World Cups, Portugal — which boasts arguably the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, and Germany — always a favorite to win it all.
Because of that, the chances of the Americans advancing are slim and now is the time to start looking toward 2018 with the players who will most likely become the core of the U.S. team over the next several years.
Besides, instead of fretting over how the exclusion of Donovan will affect the Americans offense, you should be ultra-worried about the team’s defense, which has been shaky at best over the last few years. A poor showing by the defensive backline will have more to do with the Americans’ failures than anything Donovan could have brought to the table.
Nathan Mollat can be reached by phone: 344-5200 ext. 117 or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You follow him on Twitter@CheckkThissOutt.