Dustin George-Miller is a life-long soccer fan, a sports blogger and a Goshen College staffer. His community blog on The Elkhart Truth, The Corner Flag: World Cup 2014, will cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
By now, even if you’ve barely followed the World Cup, you’re likely aware Landon Donovan is not in Brazil.
Two weeks before the World Cup kicked off, USA’s German manager Jurgen Klinsmann announced his final 23-man roster. To most people’s surprise, Donovan, the most-recognized player on the team and the closest thing USA has to a true superstar, was left off the team sheet.
As surprising as this announcement was, for ardent followers of the U.S. men’s national team it’s difficult to say that nobody saw it coming. Donovan has long had a, shall we say, uncomfortable relationship with Jurgen Klinsmann dating back to 2008, when Klinsmann, then manager of German powerhouse Bayern Munich, brought Donovan to Munich for a year-long loan.
It didn’t go well. Donovan flamed out and eventually returned to his parent club, LA Galaxy in MLS.
In more recent years, the 32-year old Donovan had begun speaking openly about his aging body beginning to break down, admitting it was harder to train at a top level and even questioning his desire to play football. In 2013, a weary and burnt-out Donovan took a three-month sabbatical from soccer entirely, bumming around Cambodia, not playing or training.
For a football coach with ingrained European sensibilities about effort, desire and ability like Klinsmann, this was infuriating. He dropped Donovan from the national team, saying he would have to “earn his way back.” He eventually did, scoring the winning goal in USA’s victory over Mexico in the Gold Cup that year. But Donovan has been off the boil more or less ever since. His output has dropped dramatically for the Galaxy. He’s lost a decent chunk of the blazing speed he was known for earlier in his career. He hasn’t scored since last October.
For most, this would be enough rationale to exclude a player from the World Cup. No matter how fast you are, you can’t outrun time. But Landon Donovan is not just any player. He’s a national icon — the United States’ all-time leader in both international goals and assists, the hero of the 2010 World Cup, the very face of soccer in the USA. The news of his omission sent shockwaves through the media. Klinsmann found himself a target of the most vicious and xenophobic attacks: How dare he leave Landon Donovan at home! Doesn’t he know who he is? Why doesn’t he just go back to Germany and leave American soccer to Americans? (That Klinsmann has lived in the USA since 1998 and is an American citizen is an irony apparently lost in the heat of righteous indigation).
In the aftermath of USA’s stunning 2-1 victory over Ghana last Monday, the calls of I told you so are starting up again. The USA is banged up. Starting striker Jozy Altidore is out for the foreseeable future with a strained hamstring, while defender Matt Besler and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, both starters, were also substituted for precautionary measures with minor niggles. It’s particularly tempting to point to Altidore’s injury and use it as a wedge to argue Donovan should have been included in the squad, and I have heard this argument espoused among certain pockets of the soccerati.
But here’s the thing – Donovan’s “guaranteed” spot on the team doesn’t make sense when you consider Klinsmann’s tactics.
In the prime of his career, Donovan was employed in three main positions: as an advanced forward, an attacking midfielder just behind the strikers (i.e. “#10,” referring to the jersey number traditionally worn by that player) or as a wide left-sided midfielder. With Klinsmann probably sticking with the diamond formation against Portugal, Donovan doesn’t have the defensive acumen of Alejandro Bedoya to play on the left, considering the defensive frailty of left-back DaMarcus Beasley. There’s no way he can dislodge Michael Bradley from the #10 role (or, at this point, his backup, Mix Diskeruud), and both remaining strikers, Aron Johansson and Chris Wondolowski are in great form coming off their club seasons and international friendlies. Even with the injury to Altidore, Donovan isn’t a like-for-like replacement, as he never has been a player adept at holding up the ball like Altidore or Wondolowski. He’s still good – perhaps as good as the other players who made the team ahead of him. It’s just not clear that he’s necessarily better.
This is not to minimize Donovan’s influence in a game. All American soccer fans have seen the video of his goal against Algeria in 2010 (if not, it’s required viewing) and he certainly has, to borrow a French phrase, a certain je ne sais quois. But this would certainly be Landon’s final World Cup. Is it not better, if he is at this point a limited impact substitute, to give that slot to a dynamic young player that can improve with time, like German-American wunderkind Julian Green? Would Brad Davis, a dead-ball specialist, not be a better option in certain circumstances?
Klinsmann himself has admitted this was “the toughest decision of [his] career” as USA manager. No doubt it’s true, but where his choice to omit Donovan rings a little hollow is in the court of public opinion. Would finding a roster spot for America’s aging soccer superstar really damage his credibility, especially considering Klinsmann just signed a new contract that takes him through the 2018 World Cup in Russia? Even if he never makes the field, Donovan enjoys elder statesman status among American soccer players. Surely it couldn't have hurt to find him a place in the side. To the casual fan, it looks more like a foreign coach is coming in, throwing his weight around and upsetting our stars. It comes across as tone-deaf.
However, I don’t think Klinsmann made his decision out of spite or anger, as I don’t think he operates that way. I do think Klinsmann has a different set of expectations for his players based upon his own experiences as a professional player and manager in Europe, and Donovan clearly wasn’t meeting those expectations at some level. Klinsmann is a manager that looks forward and evaluates his players based on how they are performing now, not on past accomplishments. His recent comments criticizing Kobe Bryant’s new NBA contract shed light on this way of thinking and may help explain his rationale for excluding Donovan: Klinsmann doesn’t understand why players are rewarded for what they have done, instead of what they will do.
Donovan will without question go down in history as one of the best soccer players in American history, but Klinsmann made the tough decision to keep him off the team because he simply wasn’t demonstrably better than the rest of the players in camp at that point in time. It’s a harsh reality, and it’s ultimately a fair one.
Moreover, the emotional reaction expressed from across the spectrum of the American soccer media was an unneeded diversion as the USA began training for Brazil… but perhaps that was the point. Klinsmann announced his roster much earlier than many other countries. This USA squad reportedly enjoys a fantastic camaraderie, which comes through in their workman-like play on the field. It’s possible the timing of Klinsmann’s announcement was done so that the anger, arguments and disappointments could run their course before the team took the field in Brazil. A bit akin to ripping off a band-aid, perhaps: It stung for a while, but there was ample time for the wound — and the country — to heal.
To his credit, Donovan has taken his omission in stride. His international football career surely finished, he’s accepted a position as an analyst for ESPN’s continuing coverage of the World Cup. He has been given ample opportunity and has declined to throw Klinsmann under the bus. He also recently starred in a humorous and self-deprecating commercial where he’s seen walking around in fuzzy slippers, moping on the couch, and half-heartedly winning the World Cup (as himself) with USA on his PlayStation. The commercial ends with an outtake of him cracking up halfway through singing a modified USA fan chant — “I’m not going to Brazil.”
It’s a perfect ending. Donovan is obviously disappointed, but he’s accepted and even found the humor in the situation. Mere days ahead of USA’s critical match against Portugal, as he watches from his living room while his friends and colleagues attempt to progress out of the group stages in Brazil, he appears not to be holding a grudge.
Neither should we.
Matches to watch:
Switzerland v. France, Group E, today, 3 pm (Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador)
France looked dominant in its opening match, while Switzerland needed the last kick of the game to beat Ecuador. Can the youthful exuberance of the Swiss topple the French?
Belgium vs. Russia, Group H, Sunday, noon (Estádio Maracanã, Rio de Janeiro)
Russia wasn’t exactly convincing in its opener versus South Korea, but it has enough talent to hang with Belgium. Winner is assured of progressing. A tie make things interesting depending on the Algeria-Korea match.
USA vs. Portugal, Group G, Sunday, 6 pm (Arena Amazônia, Manaus)
The big one. In order to advance out of Group G, USA needs at least a point from either Portugal or (gulp) Germany. With the Portuguese limping a bit due to injuries, there’s a window of opportunity here. Keep an eye out for news on Cristiano Ronaldo; rumors are he injured his knee in training a few days ago.
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