Klinsmann's decision to omit Landon Donovan signals end of an era
MAY 23, 2014 2:00p ET
STANFORD, Calif. --
Jürgen Klinsmann brought himself to account the day after cutting American soccer's golden boy loose from the United States men's national team, preparing here for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil next month. So cataclysmic was the decision by the German head coach to exclude Landon Donovan, the program's all-time leader in goals and assists and starts and jersey sales, from his final 23-man roster, that he faced a barrage of pesky questions from a usually sympathetic soccer press corps.
Jürgen, what was your conversation with Landon like?
Jürgen, when you leave Landon out, does it put more pressure on you?
Jürgen, were there any time periods over the last 18 months that Landon was in the 23-man group?
Jürgen, did you discuss Landon's cutting with the leaders of the squad?
Jürgen, your son sent a mocking tweet at the expense of Landon, what was your reaction?
Jürgen, do you expect Landon back after the World Cup?
Jürgen, how could you take Old Yeller out back?
Only the last of those is made up.
Klinsmann, as usual, talked at length without, as usual, saying very much. "I felt, we coaches felt, that the guys we chose were a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas," he said. "As of today, I'm very strongly convinced this is the right way to go for it, this is the right decision we made." Klinsmann added that the team veterans hadn't been included in the decision-making process.
But he refused to elaborate on the particulars of that process. "I wouldn't do it justice if I mention these [areas where others might be ahead of Donovan]," Klinsmann added, explaining that strengths differ and all equivalencies would be false.
And Donovan, in Klinsmann's ever-optimistic telling, responded to the news well. "He took it highly professional, with an amazing composure," he recalled. "Obviously with a big disappointment that is expected. He said that he doesn't understand it, that he thinks he should have been in the 23. I tried to lay out a couple of reasons, and those are technical parts -- I'm not going into these details right now. I said I hoped for his understanding and that he stands really by us."
Still dancing around the details, Klinsmann weirdly turned the onus of producing an explanation on the media. "I leave that up to you," Klinsmann said. "You can read him as well in his game. That's also part of your job."
What few scraps of reasoning he did offer seemed counter-intuitive. "He has done an amazing job the last 10 days since he's here and he's done everything right," Klinsmann said of Donovan's performance in the World Cup training camp that started on May 14 and culminates in friendly games with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria between May 27 and June 7.
Donovan, of course, is still an alternate, along with the six others cut on Thursday and can be brought in as a replacement for an injured player until 24 hours prior to the first World Cup game against Ghana on May 16. But Klinsmann knows full well that he had taken a club to a hornets' nest and smashed it into a fine pulp when he submitted 23 names and none of those was Landon Donovan.
And so he knew this was coming. Because Klinsmann had much to answer for. Even within the context of his track record as a coach who will try things and challenge notions and generally do it differently, this felt a tad capricious. Klinsmann hasn't apologized for shattering the ossified hierarchy of a national team once beholden to seniority -- he ruthlessly ostracized long-time captain Carlos Bocanegra a year ago -- but nobody thought him capable of dumping Donovan, or truly willing. Not on the eve of a World Cup. And certainly not when Donovan returned from a self-imposed four-month sabbatical with a new vigor and zeal last spring.
Landon and Jurgen, men who mostly go by their first names in American soccer circles, have a long history. But in the parlance coined here in Silicon Valley, their relationship status has always been set to "it's complicated." Ever since Klinsmann took over the United States program and Donovan stepped away from the sport to find and center himself, or whatever, Klinsmann has made a player who was once indisputable and unimpeachable prove himself again and again.
But this only ever seemed to be a motivational tactic, brashness in the face of hubris -- an intricate pas de deux between those rare men who know what it's like to be the best at what they do among their countrymen. Surely, it was just so much posturing in a long game to drag the very last morsels of magic out of Donovan for a few more games that really matter.
Denying Donovan a roster place wasn't the only strange or surprising decision made by Klinsmann on Thursday though. Clarence Goodson -- the lone man to have gone to a prior World Cup as a defender -- and Michael Parkhurst were thought to be locks as backups on defense. Brad Evans had been the starting right back for a year. And in their place will go defenders John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, who count just 5 caps and 41 years of age between them and are so raw as to be unreliable on the world stage. Julian Green, meanwhile, while a plainly promising 18-year-old winger, has played all of five minutes of senior soccer on the club level and 32 minutes on the international level. Is he really more likely to chip in than the man with 57 international goals and 57 assists? Really?
Klinsmann seems to think so. He isn't much for stats or other numbers-based reasoning. Because numbers are tabulated from the past. And he doesn't live in the past. Maybe he has gotten carried away in his point-making. He certainly will be second-guessed at every turn, whichever way this World Cup campaign turns out. And you have to admire, somewhere on some level, the nerve of exposing himself to the mass-produced and pre-packaged criticism that will befall him for it.
Klinsmann said he has the "strong hope" that Donovan remains available for the USA, even if he isn't brought to Brazil as an alternate. But it seems unlikely that he will. At 32, he has put in 14 hard years as the face of the program and makes no secret of the psychological strain the game has put on him of late. His motivational issues are many.
Friday may well be the first day of a new era in American soccer. Years from now, they might call it 1 AD. After Donovan.