It’s taken some time, but the bitter pill that is Landon Donovan’s exclusion from the US Men’s National Team has now been swallowed and it still feels wrong.
Will the exclusion of Landon Donovan make a lick of difference to the US World Cup hopes in Brazil? Probably Not. The most talented team in US history is still likely going three and out regardless of whether one of the final five spots includes or does not include Donovan. So why does it still sting?
It hurts in part because one expected a better ending to the story. Landon Donovan has carried the full weight of being the face of the national team every day for the last twelve years. He was handed it unexpectedly sometime in Japan and Korea when Earnie Stewart, draped in the US flag, hugged the young phenom and told him that better days were ahead for him after a narrow quarter-final loss to the eventual runner-up, Germany.
His clutch performances against the USMNT’s rival south of the border earned him the nickname the Mexicutioner. His goal against Algeria galvanized some portion of a luke-warm soccer audience behind the US National Team as YouTube compiled videos of reactions to his goal at watch parties across the nation. It hurts because until Landon Donovan put on a US jersey and served as the face of US Soccer, a watch party in one city wasn’t even a consideration let alone in multiple cities across the nation.
I can’t fathom how heavy the burden was being the face of US Soccer. Everyone was quick to point in losses if Donovan failed to have an impact and talk about how he “disappeared.” Off the field it was worse with media and fans questioning why he wasn’t pushing himself to the game’s highest levels possible. Was it a lack of heart?
For twelve years, anyone who was paying any kind of attention could see the toll it was having on Donovan culminating in taking a three month sabbatical at the start of qualifying. In all honestly, putting anything ahead of a national team’s effort to qualify whether it be to go on a sabbatical or wanting to focus on solidifying a spot in the starting line-up at your club should see you excluded from the team for the entire cycle. But let’s not pretend the sabbatical played a justification for his exclusion or worse yet try to argue that Donovan’s heart wasn’t in it. Timothy Chandler’s spot on the squad shows that no matter how non-committal you are to the cause, a spot remained open.
The gut feeling of many including myself is that Landon Donovan should still have been included because if the US needed a moment of brilliance or a spark off the bench, who better to provide it than the person who provided those moments repeatedly over twelve years? Are there really four other midfielders or two other forwards that you would want on the bench for the US ahead of Landon Donovan?
In explaining his justification for Donovan’s exclusion, Klinsmann said at his press conference that he thought the other guys were a little bit ahead of him right now. No one will write that Landon Donovan was dominating MLS to start this season. No one will write that he was in the best form of his career. But why does Klinsmann and his staff not believe that after nearly a month of training and over the course of three friendlies, his staff could not get Landon playing his best soccer?
Let’s also stop pretending this decision wasn’t made several weeks earlier. The decision was made before the final camp was even assembled. For some strange reason when the 30-man roster was released, Landon Donovan was considered solely a forward despite having played primarily as a midfielder.
With the exclusion of Donovan, the US loses a battle hardened veteran who could handle whatever came his way. It loses a player that has been one of the most clutch players for the US National Team in its entire history. More important than that though, it loses one of its best counterattacking players just before playing in a Group of Death where few would expect the US to win the possession battle in any of its three group games.
With the final roster, Jurgen Klinsmann confirmed one thing. He will play the tournament his way. He honestly believes that the US can go head-to-head with Ghana, Portugal, and Germany and not play counter-attacking soccer like a Bob Bradley or Bruce Arena smartly would do. He was tasked with changing the US Soccer mindset, and he is going to do just that even if it means leaving a Landon Donovan at home.
While excluding Donovan may turn out to be a huge success, there are several more disturbing final roster choices made by Klinsmann that are being lost in the blinding shell shock of Donovan’s exclusion. Landon Donovan shouldn’t even be the most upset or snubbed by the final roster. We will hopefully have time now to digest those decisions over the next several days after the match tonight against Azerbaijan.
For now, Landon Donovan is owed a huge debt of gratitude for his service to the US National Team. Twelve years ago, the US had very few players of his caliber and could not consider excluding even one from the World Cup. Today, the US can do it and several can even argue they are better for it in part because of the contributions over time of Landon Donovan.
Dwain Capodice is a freelance writer covering the Houston Dynamo and the US National Team for Keeper Notes and also serves as the Fan Blogger covering soccer at Chron.com. He can be reached on twitter @dcapodice or via email at email@example.com.