Landon Donovan's exclusion from the World Cup is a major risk being taken by U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
PALO ALTO, Calif. — Of all the players in U.S. Soccer, the one Jurgen Klinsmann knew most closely when he took the coach’s job in 2011 was Landon Donovan. Back in January 2009, Klinsmann had been the manager at Bayern Munich and brought Donovan over on loan, telling his bosses at Bayern that this was the player he wanted most in the winter transfer window.
Ultimately, Donovan didn’t meet expectations and returned to MLS at the end of his loan. Bayern officials wondered why Klinsmann had put so much trust in Donovan when the manager’s own job was on the line. Klinsmann was out at Bayern a few months later, and truth be told, he never entrusted his full faith in Donovan again.
The process culminated in Klinsmann cutting Donovan from the U.S. World Cup squad on Thursday, effectively ending Donovan’s sterling 14-year national team career at age 32. Donovan produced some remarkable international numbers—156 caps, five goals in three World Cups, a U.S.-record 57 goals overall—but Klinsmann never appeared fully comfortable with a player whose occasionally flagging will undoubtedly frustrated the World Cup-winning German.
Part of the conflict was Donovan’s fault. In early 2013, he took a three-month sabbatical from the sport, removing himself from contention for a World Cup qualifier when his teammates needed him. (The U.S. ended up losing that game in Honduras.) Donovan spent a week finding himself in Cambodia. He spoke candidly—sometimes too candidly for his own good—of finding it difficult to motivate himself to train hard every day.
Yet it appeared that Donovan was back last summer after responding to Klinsmann’s challenge, joining the U.S. B-team for the Gold Cup and winning the tournament as its most valuable player. Donovan’s goal against Mexico in another dos-a-cero World Cup qualifier seemed to leave no doubt that he’d be playing in his fourth World Cup this summer.
But then there were warning signs: Klinsmann yanking Donovan at halftime of a qualifier against Jamaica last October; Klinsmann benching Donovan for the U.S.-Mexico friendly last month, saying he hadn’t trained well; and then Klinsmann telling ESPN that Donovan was “untouchable” among the U.S. soccer media, a sacred cow, when in reality that was not the case.
That’s all hindsight now, though. When a bombshell decision comes down like this, so many people try to say it wasn’t a surprise or “they knew it all along,” pointing out those warning signs. But every player has them. If John Brooks had been one of the final cuts as expected, everyone would have pointed to his poor showing against Ukraine in March. Yet Brooks—surprisingly—wasn’t cut.
“It has been an honor and privilege to have represented the U.S. national team in three World Cups,” Donovan said in a statement. “I was looking forward to playing in Brazil and, as you can imagine, I am very disappointed with today’s decision. Regardless, I will be cheering on my friends and teammates this summer, and I remain committed to helping grow soccer in the U.S. in the years to come.”
Klinsmann said nice things about Donovan’s professionalism and noted it was the toughest decision of his coaching career. Then he added: “I just see some other players slightly ahead of him.”
And that’s where Klinsmann’s move has to be evaluated: In the present tense. Even allowing that Donovan isn’t the player he once was, are the players that Klinsmann chose over Donovan actual upgrades for Brazil 2014? Brad Davis has a good left foot and takes effective set pieces, but would you rather bring him on as a sub than Donovan when you need a goal? Julian Green, 18, may be a star in 2018, but he has barely played any first-team soccer at club level. You’re telling me you’d rather use him in a game than Donovan?
At the forward position, Chris Wondolowski is MLS’s greatest rags-to-riches story, but if you had the choice, you’d still pick Donovan.
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“For me, it’s a very easy equation: If he’s on the field, he’s our top one or two players,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of Donovan last Sunday. “That’s just my opinion. Whether that means anything or not, I don’t know. Landon’s humble and I’m sure he feels that way, but for me he’s easily one of our best players and he strikes fear in opponents.”
Added Donovan's LA Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, while speaking to the San Jose Mercury-News earlier this week: “If there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”
And while the present tense matters most, so does Donovan’s experience on the sport’s biggest stage. Only five players of the 23 on the final U.S. World Cup team have ever played in a World Cup before. Five. Nor would Donovan have been a locker-room problem if he wasn’t starting in Brazil. The guy isn’t a diva.
It’s possible that Klinsmann just has a different idea than everyone else of who the best players are out there. In his vote for last year’s Ballon d’Or as the top player in the world, Klinsmann didn’t include Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi in his top three. (Ronaldo ended up winning the award and will presumably be reminded of Klinsmann’s snub before the U.S. plays Portugal in Brazil.)
Yet when it comes to this World Cup, Klinsmann’s opinion is the only one that matters on the field for this U.S. team. Dropping Donovan was undeniably bold, but now the coach will have to back it up. If the U.S. defies the odds and gets out of its group in Brazil, then Klinsmann will be a visionary. But if the U.S. goes three-and-out without bringing the best team possible? Then that’s on Klinsi.