The United States Men’s National Team’s all-time leading scorer won’t be playing at the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but the story isn’t about Landon Donovan.
The story is about USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann after he decided to leave the 32-year-old forward off his 23-man roster for Rio de Janeiro.
By leaving him at home, Klinsmann has placed himself firmly on the hot seat – especially in the eyes of American fans.
Donovan is not the player he used to be, nobody can argue with that, but he is still more than just a shell of his former self. While he may not have the same pace and goal scoring ability as he had in the past, Donovan has played in three World Cups and could bring much needed leadership and poise to a young squad.
The facts are simple; Donovan wasn’t one of the best 23 in Klinsmann’s eyes, and the coach better hope he’s right. The U.S. is set to take on a tough group that many are dubbing the “group of death.” Germany is a talented and deep team, Portugal boasts Cristiano Ronaldo among other stars and Ghana has always had the USMNT’s number.
Before releasing his roster, nobody would have blamed Klinsmann if his team didn’t make it out of the group stage. Now, after making the most polarizing decision possible – save cutting captain Clint Dempsey or Everton goalie Tim Howard – the former Germany boss has increased the pressure on himself to astronomic levels.
Even though Donovan was not going to be a starter for every game, there is nobody who would have been upset to see him on the team. With Donovan at home, fans have a reason to hate Klinsmann for the first time since he took over the squad in 2011.
Overall Klinsmann has been wildly successful as the U.S. coach. He led the team to a 12-game winning streak – an all-time best for the USMNT. The U.S. qualified for the World Cup in spectacular fashion and boasts possibly its most talented roster of all time.
Yet nobody will be talking about young stars such as Bayern Munich’s Julian Green or AZ Alkmaar striker Aron Jóhannsson. The chatter won’t even be about Dempsey, Howard or Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore. By excluding Donovan, Klinsmann took all the spotlight away from the players who will be in Brazil and put it firmly on the one who won’t.
This is a make-or-break tournament for the U.S. If the team can make it out of the group stage, the talent is validated. If they don’t – especially without Donovan – it will be a failure, no matter how unfair that may be considering the draw.
Regardless of Klinsmann’s contract extension that is set to keep him with the team until 2018, if this 23-man squad doesn’t deliver, he will be in a pile of trouble with the fans and, quite possibly, his bosses.
Donovan’s exclusion is now an excuse to band together against the coach, while his inclusion would have had absolutely no negative implications.
Klinsmann claims the players he chose are just ahead of Donovan’s current ability, but I can’t imagine 31-year-old forward Chris Wondolowski – he of just 19 international appearances – will do any better than Donovan could.
I certainly hope the coach ends up looking like a genius by making it out of the group, and he should be hoping the same.
By ditching Donovan, Klinsmann has placed the target firmly on his own back.