Head coach Jürgen Klinsmann recently announced which 23 players will go to the world cup for the United States Men’s National Team. Landon Donovan, the man with the second most appearances and most goals for the US, was not one of those 23. Since his sabbatical in parts of 2012 and 2013 Landon hasn’t quite gotten along well with Klinsmann. Klinsmann has preached the necessity of a strong and together team. When Landon was on sabbatical he didn’t play for the national team or his club team, the LA Galaxy. He missed a number of world cup qualification matches.
In the summer of 2013 the US played in the Gold Cup, a tournament of only North American nations. The US only brought players that wouldn’t start in games for the national team normally essentially it was the B team. Landon was on the Gold Cup team. He was clearly the best player in the tournament. In addition to winning the player of the tournament Donovan scored the most goals in the tournament and the team won the cup. It was viewed by many as a penance for Donovan.
Shortly after the Gold Cup Donovan assumed a role as a regular starter in both world cup qualifiers and friendly matches. Unlike in the past or with the Galaxy Donovan wasn’t close to the most important player in the US team. He was the third or fourth most creative player on the field. He didn’t have a lot of responsibility creating things with the ball at his feet in the offense. Because of his age Donovan didn’t have the stamina to track back and help defensively. Donovan showed he wasn’t an essential piece of the team. He was slowly transforming from a dominant force in the game to a player with a differing skill set from other cross happy outside midfielders on the US team like Zusi and Bedoya.
Donovan was basically an every time starter until the most recent US game a friendly against hated rival Mexico in April of this year. It was the last game before the 23 man roster was announced. Donovan didn’t start. The US mid field looked very different without him. Utilizing a 4411 formation instead of the 4231 used all throughout qualification the US got a 2-0 halftime lead. Donovan was subbed onto the field 15 minutes after the half with only 30 minutes left in the game. He gave an unimpressive performance. To be fair Donovan was playing with an uncohesive unit of substituted players that were fighting to be backups on the world cup team. As is often the case in the 2nd half of friendlies the midfield couldn’t find a rhythm.
Most fans weren’t too concerned about Donovan’s absence from the starting lineup. He was old and not necessarily a starter in world cup games. Most thought that Klinsmann would be using the three game “send off series” between the announcement of the 23 and the start of the world cup to have Donovan and others fight for the starting outside midfield spots. Clearly that will not be happening.
The Klinsmann Donovan relationship has always been rocky. Klinsmann came to the US preaching a culture change and the importance of team. Donovan decided to take the sabbatical leaving Klinsmann and his national team duties. When Donovan returned to soccer and played games with the LA Galaxy Klinsmann didn’t bring him back to the national team right away. Throughout Donovan’s career and his reintegration to the national team there weren’t any reports to the media about Donovan causing problems in the locker room. However, the have been many quotes over the last 12 months about Landon’s inability to go 100% in every practice because of his age including another round of such quotes during the training camp leading up to the roster announcement.
Donovan could have provided a leadership and experience as one of few 3 time world cup veterans still playing. Instead Klinsmann seems to be looking towards the future by taking 18 year old Julian Green as a midfielder in Donovan’s place. Green has only played 30 minutes of soccer for the US. Since the US clearly isn’t going to win the world cup this year (although they do have a good chance of getting out of the toughest group in the cup) and they will have a better team in 2018 than in 2014 it does make some sense to look towards the future. Klinsmann recently signed a contract extension through 2018 so he will be judged more on that world cup than this one.
Klinsmann said before the Mexico friendly that he was going to start Donovan but decided not to because, “I wasn’t happy with his fitness”. Green is a faster player than Donovan; Klinsmann has a lot more fast players on the roster than was expected which foreshadows the US style of play in Brazil. In theory in certain situations it might be better to sub on a player like Green late in a game any way. Green has a lot of speed which causes nightmares for tired late game defenders. He is also a better shooter that Donovan. Donovan has more of a slow passing based game than Green. Brad Davis will also be available off the bench and he is a great passer of the ball from outside. Most of this isn’t critical to the team anyway because Aron Johansson will be the first man off the bench if the US needs and goal and in soccer the head coach is only allowed 3 subs.
In the end the decision to leave out Donovan probably was a combination of his waning skills, personality clashes with Klinsmann, potential to split the locker room, and lack of fit with what Klinsmann wanted to do in this particular world cup. It is not uncommon for a player to start a large number of world cup qualifiers and contribute to the campaign but not go to the world cup. This happened to Brad Evans, Eddie Johnson, Terrence Boyd, and Hercules Gomez. There were signs of this coming over the past year but none of the loyal US fans who had cheered for Donovan over the years. It just seems like personal conflict between Klinsmann and Donovan was the driving force behind this decision. It also feels like Donovan is a guy that can still make a goal happen. If it was the 65th minute in a 1-1 game and Ian Darke says, “Landon Donovan is now warming up. Could he be the player to make the difference in this one” everyone would, on some level, feel like Donovan could come onto the field and get the job done.