There’s something grotesquely Darwinian about the long slog to the World Cup, the cut-throat competition to make your country’s team. The harshness of life in professional sports is seldom so naked and raw as when World Cup squads are chopped down to size, as the United States men’s national team’s was on Thursday. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann cut seven players, to bring his 30-man preliminary roster down to the FIFA-mandated final 23-man team.
Landon Donovan, the face of American soccer for the last decade, was among the victims. So were defenders Brad Evans, a regular starter; Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst, who seemed certain of jobs as backups; midfielder Maurice Edu, a reliable veteran; and young upstarts Joe Corona, a midfielder, and Terrence Boyd, a striker.
So on Friday, the mood around the American camp seemed conflicted. The Yanks have been going through their World Cup preparations on a lush, easy-going campus of an elite college. Yet this idyllic and hopeful environment is also where seven dreams were dashed. Those who remained seemed overjoyed but there was also the sense that they had just lived through some awful collective trauma.
This is what their life is like. Every week and for every game, there are cuts. Men who make it and men who won’t. They all know that sooner or later, they won’t make it all anymore. This is a truth of sport: stars become superfluous overnight, regulars turn redundant, and the distance between hero and zero is small. Not so long ago, it seemed unimaginable that Donovan wouldn’t be at a World Cup when he was only 32 years old and still capable of the things that made him famous.
But there was no dwelling on all of that here in camp.
"It’s the nature of sports," said midfielder Michael Bradley, who is off to his second World Cup. "The game doesn’t stop for anybody. That’s meant as no disrespect to anybody. When that door gets shut, it’s important to make sure that these guys [who were cut] - those are our friends, our teammates - understand that there’s appreciation for everything that they’ve given. But they would also understand that now we’re not going to sit here and talk about Landon Donovan and Clarence Goodson and Maurice Edu for the next month. That’s just not how it works. The game moves on, and we have to be ready to do that as well.
"We all have an incredible amount of respect and appreciation and admiration for everything Landon has done with this team and soccer in this country," added Bradley. "To see him and six other guys walk out the door yesterday, it’s not easy. But at this point, there’s a group of 23 guys who are ready to go to a World Cup and forget about everything else."
If that sounds harsh, it’s also necessary. The Americans were handed a horrid draw, pitting them against Ghana, Germany and Portugal. All their attention has to be on the games ahead.
This isn’t to say that anybody saw Donovan’s dismissal coming. He holds just about all the records for an American outfield player and seems to still be popular in the locker room. "We were all a little bit shocked, surprised," said midfielder Brad Davis, who is going to his first World Cup and had for a time seemed a long shot to make the team. "No matter what, when the cuts come down, everybody is going to be bummed. We’re all friends, we’re all brothers here, we’ve all worked oh so hard to get this opportunity."
But this is part of the life. "With Germany in 2008 I was the guy who was sent home," said midfielder Jermaine Jones of Euro 2008, after which he made a one-time switch to represent the United States in 2010. "I know how it is, how it hurts. But now it’s finished."
You have to look forward, not back to those left behind. "You can’t," Davis said. "Otherwise it’s going to distract you from your preparation. Yesterday, we said our goodbye. You have to move on."
The Americans have moved on. The rat race has completed another lap and they are still in it. They now know who they will be going to Brazil with, barring injury. The World Cup is less than three weeks away. There isn’t time to think about anything, or anyone, else.