EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – When the U.S. national team takes the field here for Friday evening’s game against Ecuador, it will pass under a large blue banner covering the entrance to the players’ tunnel. It bears the U.S. Soccer logo and reads, “LegenD 10”.
There’s no question that the retiring Landon Donovan, the all-time leader in goals and assists for both his national team and his league, is a legend. But other questions linger. Could he have accomplished even more during his groundbreaking 16-year career? Why didn’t he succeed at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in Germany? Would he have succeeded if he’d stayed at Everton? For many fans, those questions remain, as they do for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Perhaps no coach who encountered Donovan believed in him more and less than Klinsmann. A former World Cup and European Championship winner, the German backed Donovan when bringing him to Bayern in 2008 and risked ridicule if the American didn’t stick. This summer, Klinsmann cut Donovan from the World Cup team, shocking an American soccer community that assumed the most prolific player in U.S. history would find his form in Brazil.
On Thursday at Rentschler Field, only a few yards from the “LegenD 10” banner and the field where Donovan will wear a U.S. jersey for the final time, Klinsmann expressed his admiration for the player’s accomplishments while asking the same question posed by so many fans – what if?
“You look at these 15 years he played and on a very high level, breaking records through the system here, coming through the youth system, through U.S. Soccer’s residency program – he represents so many elements of soccer in the United States. He has been the poster boy for the game, for MLS certainly, for that long stretch of time. He raised the awareness of the game to a new dimension … He deserves all the admiration and recognition for this amazing career,” Klinsmann said.
“As a coach, you always want to drive your players to his highest level of capability, to his highest potential he can reach,” Klinsmann continued. “That’s why I gave him the opportunity to come to Bayern Munich as well. Check it out. Give it a shot. It didn’t go so well but it was good that he did it because it showed him how the game is played on the Champions League level … As a coach, you always want to see a player who drives for his 100 percent and I’m looking at Landon always that I wish, in a certain way, he could have done a bit more here and a bit more there. But he had a tremendous career.”
Donovan has scored a record 57 international goals. He leads second-place Clint Dempsey by a whopping 46 percent. Donovan’s 58 U.S. assists are more than double the 22 put up by runner-up Cobi Jones. Donovan scored five World Cup goals. He won four CONCACAF Gold Cup titles, five MLS Cup championships and leads the league in a host of statistical categories. And he’s not that far past his prime if his performances for the L.A. Galaxy over the past couple of months are any indication.
But that wasn’t enough for Klinsmann, who said Thursday that he remains certain that leaving Donovan off the World Cup team was the right decision. Maybe there really were 20 better field players at the warm-up camp at Stanford. Perhaps Donovan just hadn’t done enough to earn the long-term benefit of the doubt.
"You always make a decision based on what you see in that specific moment in time. In that moment in May, the picture for us was very clear and we were 100 percent behind the decision we made. I wouldn’t make any other decision,” Klinsmann said.
“A month later, a half a year earlier, you maybe would’ve seen another 23 … but you have to name a roster for that specific time period and you have to be convinced in what you’re doing. And I think we proved that point in Brazil.”
Klinsmann has seen several of his key veteran players leave Europe for MLS. Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and others felt it was the right move for that point in their career. But all stuck it out in Europe far longer than Donovan, which is what Klinsmann seems to lament.
“Every player makes his own decision in how far he wants to take ceratin things. I wish he’d have gotten a longer time at Bayern Munich to prove his point. He was right there. All he needed was a goal…,” Klinsmann said. “[If] he just wanted to play his career in MLS, which is fine, too, if that’s what he wants. As a coach, you always wish for that extra piece that you see in somebody and I think he had that opportunity and if he’s fine with that, that’s okay. I think he could have gone even further than that.”
For a significant chunk of Klinsmann’s tenure, the U.S. has relied on a core of veteran midfielders who prioritize team shape, timely tackling and smart passing. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are very good at what they do and both are capable of contributing to the attack. Kyle Beckerman, who started three of four games at the World Cup, is a quintessential defensive midfielder who excels supporting the back four while the likes of Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan and even Geoff Cameron have filled in at one of the national team’s deepest positions.
But Klinsmann wasn’t thrilled with the way the U.S. finished the World Cup, unable to establish much possession or attacking rhythm against either Germany or Belgium (until it was desperate).
While there’s no real reason the aforementioned vets should be exiting the U.S. picture, Klinsmann has introduced a new wrinkle. Against the Czech Republic last month, he started Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona and Mix Diskerud – each of whom is considered an attacking midfielder. The Americans won, 1-0, thanks to Bedoya’s goal in Prague. The trio very well could start together again on Friday night. Among the six midfielders named to the current roster (five remain after Julian Green’s departure), only Alfredo Morales can be considered a more traditional holding midfielder. And he’s played only twice for the senior team.
“It’s a new cycle, it’s another four years until the world cup,” Bedoya, 27, told SI.com Thursday at Rentschler Field. “We’ve been moving forward now with a new young team. With every new cycle you want to try new players and stuff, and I feel old now with all these young guys coming in. I think it’s important to try new things. That’s the only way we’re going to get better is to be able to use different formations, different tactics.”
The potential upside is more possession and a more dangerous and proactive link between the midfield and the forwards, whether it’s the likes of Jozy Altidore or Chris Wondolowski up high or a speedy wide player such as Joe Gyau. Bedoya said that the movement off the ball can be more dynamic and that the potential for swapping positions during play is greater. The downside is a lack of defensive experience and bite. That’s something Klinsmann has been stressing since the World Cup.
“In general terms, we always talk about defending as a whole team and attacking as a whole team and getting everybody connected and everybody has to play both sides of the ball. But going back to the World Cup, where we really struggled, especially against Belgium, was to defend as a team, defend as a unit,” Klinsmann said. “So with a new cycle starting and looking at the next generation of players coming through, we want to give them the opportunity to show that in our environment … if you have players committed to do both sides of the ball and do that with enormous discipline but also aggressiveness and on top of that, obviously skill, it would be great to kind of move on that path.”
Diskerud, Bedoya and Corona certainly aren’t as imposing as the World Cup starters. They’re different players. But they have the skill to keep and move the ball. Klinsmann’s aim is to lift their tenacity to the same level as their technique.
“It’s only been one game now but I feel like we showed [in Prague] that we can step up when we need to. We managed to keep the ball and we played how we wanted to. Of course Michael and Kyle and Jermaine, they’ve been around for a while and they have a lot of skills to bring, but we want to show what we can be as well,” Diskerud, 24, told SI.com. “[Klinsmann] told us, and the press, that he wanted to see players like me and Joe Corona and Bedoya contribute defensively and kind of be on our toes … We look at it as a challenge and something I definitely want to develop in my game.”
Bradley (Toronto FC), Jones (New England Revolution), Beckerman (Real Salt Lake) and Edu (Philadelphia Union) each have MLS games this weekend but may be called in for next Tuesday’s friendly against Honduras.
When discussing Donovan, Klinsmann didn’t mean to suggest that players shouldn’t face adversity in Europe. That’s a given. The issue is how it’s handled, and the manager said Thursday that he’s keeping a close eye on how Altidore (Sunderland) and John Brooks (Hertha Berlin) negotiate their respective rough patches.
Altidore, 24, has featured for Sunderland in only one English Premier League game since the start of September and has played six times overall this season. He told ESPN this week in Boston that he’d be open to a January transfer if his situation doesn’t improve. Brooks, 21, who scored the game-winning goal against Ghana, was demoted to Hertha’s reserve team last month.
“It’s a tough period for him. A tough situation,” Klinsmann said of Altidore. “All we can do form our end is kind of encourage him, keep him sharp when he comes in here. We know what he can do. We know his potential. We know his quality. Right now, it doesn’t seem that he fits so well there.”
Regarding Altidore’s future at Sunderland, Klinsmann said, “If he makes a move in January and it would work out that he plays and scores again, there’s nothing better than that. If he has to continue to fight his way through in Sunderland, so be it. He gets the same support from us.”
Klinsmann believes that Brooks ultimately may emerge a more mature player.
“This is something typical that happens in the early stage of your career … he will have moments where maybe he has something wrong in a training session or he’s not as attentive in a moment and the coach wants to give you a little lesson,” the manager said. “That’s the education process he’s simply going through in Berlin.
Brooks, a Berlin native, emerged as a Hertha starter during its 2. Bundesliga campaign in 2012-13 and then started 14 matches in the top tier last season.
“They keep developing him and sooner or later he’ll be a regular starter. But he also has to learn to deal with those moments,” Klinsmann said, adding that sometimes a player returns from an experience like the World Cup assuming he’ll be an automatic first choice.
“It’s not the case – not in Europe,” Klinsmann said. “He should be back on track once he gets home from here and show his coach that he’s taking those lessons the right way and not be angry about it.”
Those lessons are a big part of the reason Klinsmann wants to see his players challenge themselves abroad.
“For MLS players, it’s a bit easier to go back into that environment [after a World Cup] because they’re kind of stars in their teams,” he said. “They’re not really in doubt there. In Europe, it’s a different ballgame.”