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Donovan's World Cup exclusion a shock, but should it be?

The midfielder's absence from the U.S. World Cup roster sent waves through American Soccer, but a closer look at the snub suggests that maybe it shouldn't have been a shock

STANFORD, Calif. — Landon Donovan will not be going to the World Cup.

That sentence isn’t one many U.S. national team fans thought they would be hearing for another four years, and one U.S. fans have never heard before. But Jurgen Klinsmann effectively put an end to the most accomplished career in U.S. history on Thursday when he left Donovan off the final 23-man World Cup roster.

It was shocking, in large part because of all that Donovan has accomplished in his career, particularly in past World Cups. And also shocking because of what he was able to do just last summer, when he led the U.S. to the Gold Cup title and seemingly put to rest any notion that time had passed him by.

As shocking as it was to not see Donovan’s name on a U.S. World Cup roster for the first time since 1998, it really shouldn’t have been that unthinkable. Not after hearing Klinsmann’s haunting comments in the first episode of the ESPN behind-the-scenes series covering the U.S. World Cup preparations.

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“Landon Donovan – the media thinks he's untouchable,” Klinsmann said. “The media thinks he has to be in the starting lineup or he has to be in Brazil based on what he did, and he did marvelous for soccer in the United States over the last 12, 14 years.

“That's not how it works. I have to choose the best 23 players based on what I see today.”

Apparently Klinsmann didn’t like what he saw, choosing instead to select less-heralded players such as Brad Davis, Chris Wondolowski and Julian Green.

The thing about Klinsmann’s “untouchable” comment is that it wasn’t just media who thought he was “untouchable.” Several of his own teammates, some of the U.S. team’s best players, have gone on record saying Donovan’s presence still matter significantly to the U.S. team’s hopes in Brazil.

“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 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.”

Even the measured Michael Bradley sang Donovan’s praises last fall, saying any chance the U.S. team had of making a deep run in Brazil would depend on Donovan.

So what changed?

A look at Donovan’s form this MLS season could offer some clues. He hasn’t looked as sharp or as fast as we have grown accustomed to him being, which is a big reason why he has yet to score a goal for the LA Galaxy this season. He still has pace, but not the sort of blazing speed he once possessed.

All that being said, was his form so worrisome, and below-par that leaving out his experience and penchant for World Cup heroics was less ideal than bringing in even more players with zero World Cup experience?

Just how much World Cup experience is on this U.S. roster? Try just five players out of the 23 chosen have played in a World Cup before. That’s a shockingly low number, making Donovan’s exclusion all the more perplexing.

There is that lingering feeling that there is more to this decision than purely soccer. That a rift between Klinsmann and Donovan has existed for some time. Donovan denied the existence of a rift as recently as last week, but now with Klinsmann’s decision, rumors will continue to persist.

Could it really be about the soccer? Sure. Klinsmann might have decided that the chemistry of his team was better served by bringing in more younger players and role players, and he might have decided that Donovan’s form had regressed enough to justify leaving him out, even at the risk of setting off a panic in American soccer circles not seen since, well, ever.

Before you go shedding tears over Donovan's exclusion from the World Cup roster consider this: Donovan probably has himself to blame for his exclusion, at least in part, because of his decision a year ago to take a break from the game. When he stepped away, he left the U.S. team without one of its best players heading into very important World Cup qualifiers. That forced the team to come together and earn results without him. In March of 2013, the Americans beat Costa Rica and tied Mexico in Mexico City. Soon after, Klinsmann chose to leave Donovan out of the World Cup qualifying squad in part because of his earlier absence and the team responded with three more World Cup qualifying victories.

In short, the U.S. team learned how to play without Donovan, and win without Donovan, and while Klinsmann may not admit as much, the seeds for Donovan's World Cup exclusion were sewn during those qualifiers.

Ultimately, as shocking as Klinsmann’s decision is, the final verdict won’t be reached until the World Cup group stage is complete and every seemingly questionable roster inclusion is counted and rated. That goes for Green, Davis and Wondolowski, who fair or not, must produce in Brazil or forever be labeled “That bust Klinsmann took instead of Landon Donovan.”

Klinsmann will give his young players chances to pick up the mantle Donovan has left behind, and let us not forget that it was 12 years ago when a 20-year-old kid named Landon Donovan took the World Cup by storm when little was expected of him. What came next was a U.S. national team career like we have never seen before.

That is part of the reason Thursday’s announcement was so shocking. It means the end of a great career, and also means dealing with the uncertainty that comes with not knowing when, and if, someone will come along to take Donovan’s place.

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