Landon Donovan could not have sent a louder, timelier message to Jurgen Klinsmann. Just three days after his headline-making exclusion from the chance to perform at a fourth World cup, the U.S. Men's National Team's all-time top scorer became the leading marksman in the history of Major League Soccer with goal No. 135 and then No. 136 in the LA Galaxy’s home victory against the Philadelphia Union.
Meanwhile, the U.S. will continue their preparations for Brazil around 400 miles north on Tuesday evening with a friendly against Azerbaijan in San Francisco. Donovan won’t be there, but his absence continues to linger over the 23 players who remain. Less than three weeks before they will take on Ghana in what is likely to be a must-win game in an ominous World Cup group that also contains European powerhouses Germany and Portugal, it is an unwelcome distraction. Yet Klinsmann knows that the biggest decision he has taken in his near-three-years in charge will continue to loom large if the team fails to produce both encouraging results and performances.
Klinsmann’s decision to exclude a player regarded as the most gifted American soccer player of all time was undoubtedly a Twitter-flooding surprise, yet it also entailed a peculiar sense of the inevitable. Since Donovan elected to take a three-month sabbatical from the sport in the winter of 2013, in order to recharge his batteries after more than a decade of being the poster-boy for U.S. soccer, he has appeared an outsider. He would need to do everything right in order to simply have a chance of earning his way back inside Klinsmann’s “circle of trust.”
Perhaps that sabbatical only added to Klinsmann’s sense that Donovan was flakey, lacked the mental strength that the former Germany striker has so obviously sought in his attempts to take his adopted country to the next level on the world soccer stage. The pair’s relationship dates back to 2009, when Donovan was signed on loan by Klinsmann in his then role as Bayern Munich coach. Donovan’s time at the German giants lasted just six games and a couple of months. Klinsmann’s disastrous tenure expired soon after.
It is hard not to think that the snub is personal. Perhaps to Klinsmann, Donovan is the most overt representation of what he views as the most detrimental aspect of some American players’ mentality. Klinsmann has made no secret of the fact that he wants his players to be challenging themselves in a big league in Europe. He has previously spoken of what he thinks is a lack of belief that holds American players back from making their mark at the highest level of the sport -- in competitions like the Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, and ultimately the Champions League.
In contrast, since being signed by Bayer Leverkusen as a 16-year-old and soon heading back to his home state of California, Donovan’s time in Europe has been limited to a few short-lived loan spells. The bulk of his career has been spent as the big fish in the small pond of MLS.
If Klinsmann does think Donovan lacks what top players require between the ears, then the 32-year-old has been working hard to correct that impression in the past year. Last summer’s Gold Cup, where the U.S. sent a second-string roster, was seen as Donovan’s chance to impress. While the opposition was below anything that the U.S. will encounter in Brazil next month, Donovan could hardly have done more. The forward scored five goals, contributed seven assists and was named player of the tournament. When he then assisted one and scored the other in a 2-0 victory over the Yanks' greatest rivals, Mexico, last September, to clinch his country’s place at their seventh consecutive World Cup, it was hard to imagine that Donovan would not be on the plane come the following June.
But then Klinsmann appeared to lay the groundwork for Donovan’s exclusion. He was hauled off at half-time against Jamaica last October and then left out of the team for a friendly with Mexico last month. Then came the decision last week, on which even the most causal soccer fan in American had a strong opinion one way or the other.
While Klinsmann appears to have his reasons above a simple vendetta -- the idea of a top player taking a sabbatical and missing important games for club and country is almost unheard of -- it is still hard to argue that the U.S. is stronger without him. This is a player, after all, who scored one of the most famous goals in U.S. soccer history just four years ago when getting a late winner against Algeria to take the team into the last-16 of the World Cup. It simply doesn’t get much more clutch than that.
Klinsmann, who was unusually handed a new contract in the lead up to Brazil, taking him to the 2018 World Cup, has denied that his roster has been selected with at least one eye on the future. Yet, the selection of 18-year-old Julian Green, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin and 21-year-old John Brooks, who between them have six caps and who have far from stood out in a positive sense in their time on the pitch, suggest otherwise.
Even if you opt to take those young players for experience, it remains difficult to see how a place isn’t found for Donovan. Several members of the U.S. squad have spoken recently of their reverence and respect for what Donovan has done and can still do. It is hard to believe that they wouldn’t be lifted more by the sight of Donovan coming off the bench trailing 1-0 to Ghana with 30 minutes remaining than they would by, say, Brad Davis or Chris Wondolowski -- two fine contributors in MLS, but with little record to speak at the top level international arena. With Donovan included, the U.S. squad could count eight World Cup goals among its ranks, without him that number is down to just three.
There remains the chance that an injury could lead to Donovan being called in as a late replacement. After taking on Azerbaijan, the U.S. will face Turkey in New Jersey on Sunday before rounding out their preparation against Nigeria in Florida the following Saturday. Should one of the forwards or attacking midfielders -- Wondolowski, Davis, Green, Jozy Altidore, Aron Johansson, Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoja -- suffer a fitness issue that rules them out of the World Cup in any of those games, or indeed in training, then a replacement will be called.
Klinsmann is free to make changes to his squad until June 2, while he can replace a player due to a proven injury up to 24 hours before the U.S.’ first game on June 16. Klinsmann has said that turning to Donovan in the event of an injury remains a possibility, while Donovan has confirmed that he would not reject such an invitation. Yet, given the nature of his exclusion and the media circus his reintroduction would bring, that feels unlikely. At this stage Donovan’s presence in Brazil looks more likely to be in the broadcast booth, rather than out on the pitch. Midfielder Joe Corona and forward Terrence Boyd were omitted from the original 23, as well, and a strong case can be made for their inclusion.
There is always a danger of holding onto the past too long, but equally there is also a history of teams heading to World Cups concentrating too much on a future that may never come. Klinsmann’s determination to sign Donovan at Bayern and the player’s subsequent failure to justify that faith is seen as a major reason for the coach’s departure.
This time around, if Donovan continues to fire in the goals back home and Klinsmann abjectly fails to achieve his mission statement of establishing the U.S. among the true soccer powers in Brazil, it could be his lack of faith in Donovan that leaves his own job on unstable ground.