Landon Donovan's experience and goals will be missed at the World Cup
surely brings to an end one of the most decorated international careers in US soccer. The man who has scored more World Cup finals goals (five in 12 appearances) than any other US player (and indeed, more, as one image doing the rounds had it, than Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and Rooney have managed in 31 games) has found himself becoming the ultimate emblem of Jurgen Klinsmann's "What have you done for me lately?" policy.
To be clear, Donovan is one of seven players who missed the cut – a list that also includes Maurice Edu, Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Joe Corona, Terrence Boyd and Michael Parkhurst.
Cases could be made for and eyebrows raised at any one of those omissions: Boyd finding himself missing out to Chris Wondolowski for the final striker slot, Evans losing the right-back spot he'd made his own in qualifying, Edu's ability to play central defense and midfield edged out by the specialist qualities of Kyle Beckerman in the latter position.
But the omission of Donovan was the seismic shock of the squad announcement. The not-unrelated inclusions of unproven youngsters DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green caused minor ripples by comparison. Certainly a squad without Donovan will be seen as the personnel decision Klinsmann will stand or fall by.
There seemed to be acknowledgement of that in the timing of the announcement. As recently as Wednesday, Klinsmann indicated he didn't have a date in mind for making the cuts, but with the first warm-up game looming next week, and presumably with full knowledge of the media circus that would accompany Donovan's axing, the coach decided to make the announcement as soon as possible:
For the players, it’s very important to know that they are now part of it and they can relax and know they are on the list going to Brazil and taking it from there. After almost 10 days of work right now, we thought the point has come to make the decision.
Never mind the last 10 days, or indeed the last decade when it comes to Donovan's contribution, Klinsmann's decision may have much to do with the last 18 months. A clearly exhausted Donovan from club and country after the Galaxy's 2012 MLS Cup victory, and found his path back into a bemused Klinsmann's plans less smooth than he had perhaps anticipated.
Donovan eventually earned a recall, and sparkled during the USA's Gold Cup win last summer, before returning for the end of the World Cup qualifying campaign. But his newly conservative approach to managing his body between games means that he doesn't go full tilt in training any more, and Klinsmann remarked on this fact when leaving him out of the starting line-up for last month's friendly against Mexico.
Few saw that as writing on the wall, however. Donovan still seemed to be one of a select handful of US players capable of changing a game off the bench, while Bayern's German American teenager Julian Green, introduced for a second-half cameo in the same game (his only international minutes so far), has had little chance to show what, if anything, he is capable of at this level. Certainly the thought that Donovan might miss out in a squad where Green and the talented but raw Seattle full-back DeAndre Yedlin were picked, seemed unthinkable until the announcement came.
Yet when it did, after the initial shock, it made a certain sense – if not in immediate tactical terms, at least from the perspective of the Klinsmann project and the unprecedented authority the coach has within his job. Distinct from many international coaches, Klinsmann has power at every level of the US domestic game with a strong remit for technical development. The German squad who are one of the favorites for this World Cup owe something to his then-criticized commitment to youth in the 2006 team. Klinsmann's recent contract extension to 2018 indicated that for the US Soccer top brass Klinsmann's tenure is not contingent solely, or even mainly, on results in Brazil. On that basis, why not blood potential future national team stars this time out?
Indeed, why not do so by also offering them an image that illustrates no one is sacred in this team (though for US fans, Donovan's late goal against Algeria to send his team into the knockout stages of the last World Cup, is as near to a holy moment as exists)?
Maybe because for all that Donovan is not what he once was, he's still a much more proven quantity than the vast majority of the squad who are going. Klinsmann might have made an equally forceful point by not starting him, but retaining his game-changing potential. Instead he made the dramatic gesture that will set the tone for the remainder of this warm-up period at the very least. Certainly the manner of his departure – called up for the 30, dropped from the 23, is particularly humiliating for a national team icon (it certainly wasn't helped by Klinsmann's a comment laughing at Donovan's fate).
It's a risky proposition all round. With due respect to Donovan's apparent replacement, Brad Davis, the left-footed set piece threat he offers doesn't, at first glance, outweigh the other areas of the game where Donovan still looks a better option (and Donovan's no slouch on set pieces either, it should be noted).
Last year, during Donovan's national team absence, the focus was on Graham Zusi as a long-term possible replacement. Zusi will travel to Brazil. When I spoke to Zusi last month he wearily referenced "the hype" about him replacing Donovan, while never really believing there was going to be any other outcome than Donovan making the squad. Indeed there almost seemed like some wishful lobbying in his hope that "to be honest, I'd like to be playing on the same team as Landon Donovan." Sadly for Zusi, much more so for Donovan, and for the immediate mood of the USA fans, that's not going to happen.