I suppose it would have been easier for Jurgen Klinsmann to just throw Landon Donovan on his World Cup roster, deserved or not, even if he didn't believe him to be one of the 23-best options available. But then nothing about Klinsmann's tenure with the US Men's National Team has been about the easy way out. If anything, it has been a construct in breaking with the norm and routine that had made US Soccer stale; it's been about challenge new concepts in team-building and tactics and squad-selection and fitness and training.
So while my initial reaction to Donovan – who has been a pedestrian player in a relatively pedestrian league this season and a passenger on the national team for quite some time – being left off the 23-man roster was mild surprise, it was anything but shocking. If you've been paying attention to Klinsi's MO since taking over the team – his response to the turmoil and anonymous shots at him during a slow start to qualifying; how quickly he moved on from some of the old guard like highly-capped defender Carlos Bocanegra; his steadfast resolve to see how those around him react to change and being forced to deal with new sets of sometimes uncomfortable ideas – then you could see this coming.
"I think it's a surprise, but the writing was on the wall, right?" is how one longtime US international player summed it up.As Klinsmann explained to the US Soccer website: "I just think the other guys, right now, are a little bit ahead of him. I told him that and he understands it, but obviously he is very disappointed."
And if you happened to have spent any time in Germany eight years ago this month – as I did covering the 2006 World Cup for The Washington Post – and saw what a nationwide tempest Klinsmann set off by abruptly dropping decorated Oliver Kahn as his starting goalkeeper with Die Mannschaft in place of Jens Lehmann – then you know that the fallout from "Donovangate" will not phase the manager in the least. Klinsmann has already allowed his iconoclastic bent to court far greater controversies than this, and the reaction from both within the hardcore US Soccer community, as well as from a mainstream US sporting public still largely clueless about the makeup and inner workings of its national team will not phase him in the least.
This pales to anything he faced will coaching his country during a World Cup held in his country, and that German team quickly shut up its legion of neysayers and won the affections of their nation. I also can't help but wonder if Klinsmann feels his teams will thrive from a little friction as well, pulling a little closer from the controversy and rallying from within in the aftermath of something like this.
Klinsmann will follow his convictions, we know that much, and I applaud his willingness to challenge what's been standard operating procedure. As a passionate supporter of US Soccer, I'm behind the move. I get it. If you wanted another autocrat, who would allow the powers that be at US Soccer to play puppet master with him, then Klinsi was never that guy. If you were into sacred cows and automatic squad selections, then this isn't your manager. The fact that it took five years to eventually land Klinsmann, since US Soccer wasn't willing to play by his rules when first approaching him about the job after the 2006 World Cup, is every indication that he is very much in charge now.
After some awkward moments and uncomfortable situations, his hand has helped this team have great success both in qualifying and on the road against firm European competition in friendlies, and the results are fairly beyond reproach. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt on this decision – clearly the biggest call of his spell as manager here – and I'd urge you to, as well. (And who knows, ultimately this may be a moot point, as Klinsmann said Donovan is fully committed to joining the team should an injury create a need.)
This tournament, in particular, played in South America at the end of another grueling season (in most of the world), with the US in a group of death that requires extensive travel even within Brazil itself, is not for the long of tooth. At 32, Donovan is past his prime, and playing the position he does – forward or attacking midfielder from the wing – is particularly incumbent upon explosiveness. A player whose pace and ability to make sashaying runs was so integral to his game, has lost a step or two, his delivery on crosses and set pieces for the national team have long been in decline and perhaps, as he himself has alluded to several times in the past and during his sabbaticals from soccer, maybe all of the games and all of the hard fouls and all of his years of service to club and country have caught up to him.
It happens. And his not being on this squad does nothing to take away from what he has meant to US Soccer, as both a youth international and since bursting onto to the global scene in the run up to the 2002 World Cup. But Donovan has done little to impact this MLS season and was as bit part in qualifying at best. Klinsmann's squad selection is prizing youth and pace above much else (call it fresh legs uber alles), and if you allow yourself not to consider the Donovan omission in a vacuum, but rather as part of a larger exercise in putting together a team, it is hardly incongruous with what the manager is doing, as the selection of youngsters John Brooks, Julian Green, Mix Diskerud, Aron Johannsson, Alejandro Bedoya, DeAndre Yedlin and Timmy Chandler speaks to. All of them were born in the 1990s – nearly 1/3 of the squad and this group encompasses what could be several offensive-minded super subs (the role Donovan was trying to cling to).
Fact is, very few field players on this roster are over the age of 30. Donovan's old pal DeMarcus Beasley is 32, but he plays a position of great need, and found a niche on this club in a way Donovan never could. Outside back remained a problem spot and Beasley ended up a regular starter in this new role, and, I imagine, will be a trusted reserve once Klinsi gets his starting XI set. Beasley provides the World Cup experience in the back, and could also fill in as a winger as well if need be. Versatility is imperative.
In the midfield, Brad Davis is the over-30 guy to get the call in a reserve role, and if you want to parse this roster for whom actually got Donovan's ticket to Brazil, it's Davis. Why? Well, for one, he has probably the most deft left-footed delivery in MLS (a role Eddie Lewis served well under Bruce Arena with this team). Davis, like Beasley, has a niche. He can fill that void and if we are looking for someone to provide service off the bench in need of offense, I'd take Davis over Donovan right now, each in current form. I'd rather have Davis over a deadball on a corner or set piece.
If you don't agree, and want to defer to Donovan's past, so be it. But Davis got his spot. And for those misguided enough to think Donovan had a starting role on this team, well, the development of Graham Zusi on the wing has shoved Donovan to the outskirts of this team, as much as Donovan's time off from the game did.
So let's look at the numbers. With his centralback pairing still a quandary and outside defenders hardly cemented, either, Klinsmann went with eight in the back. He needs numbers there to sort it out, and that's why Chandler and Yedlin are in, despite having not been around the team much. That, and their considerable upside as well. Three keepers have us up to 11 roster spots.
In the midfield, he needed a destroyer in reserve, especially with Jermaine Jones a considerable red-card threat, which goes to Kyle Beckerman, who also has shown he can link well in the passing game with Michael Bradley, the fulcrum of this team. Bedoya can run at people with the ball and stretch a defense, Zusi is a starter, Davis provides left-footed service. Some might point to Mix Diskerud as someone who should have been left behind, but it's worth noting the US lost just 1 of the 13 games he appeared in last year, he provides better defensive cover than Donovan at this stage and he also chipped in two goals. He could be a jack-of-all trades perhaps if needed be, centrally or wide in a pinch.
Which brings us to Green. Some will moan about Green's lack of international experience, saying they want Donovan over the teenager. But this is a move with the future in mind – newsflash, the US is not winning this World Cup - and I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised if in the backrooms, as the US was trying to get the coveted youngster to commit to our country and not Germany, it was whispered in his ear that if he chose the red, white and blue now he'd be one of these 23 players. After losing out on potential difference-making dual internationals like Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic, I'd be the first to applaud US Soccer if in fact it did make a secret pact with Green to land him.
As for the forwards, Jozy Altidore's club season was a total washout, but he's scored goals in droves at times under Klinsmann and is a starting-caliber target forward. Johannsson has been downright magical at times and is coming off a superb club campaign. Clint Dempsey is the captain, assuming Landon's old role with the arm band, and Donovan's old teammate Chris Wondolowski is simply a poacher and he's scored for Klinsi recently and whether you want to consider Donovan a midfielder or forward with this team – he never cemented his status as either during this qualifying cycle – Wondo took was likely one of the final spots on the plane, leaving Donovan, for the first time really this century, off of it.
I'm sure Donovan's experience will be missed, and, there has been no one I'd rather see taking a penalty kick for the US than him for a very long time (I'd prefer Bradley to Dempsey in Donovan's absence). Donovan may well be the greatest American player ever – though his foibles in his European club career give some pause – and I understand those who recall his big moments in big games, in 2002 and 2010, and feel like that alone should merit his inclusion now. Klinsmann is being more forward thinking than that, perhaps to his own detriment.
If you want to judge this move, assess how some of these young midfielders and strikers (oh, and the 33-year-old Davis) perform in minutes 75-through-90, and perhaps beyond, as they come off the bench with the entire world watching. That's where Donovan might have shown up. I, like Klinsi, believe the kids will be quite alright.