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Landon Donovan: The Pros & Cons of Leaving the American Star Off the World Cup Roster

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U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann shocked the American soccer community Thursday by omitting Landon Donovan from the final 2014 World Cup roster. Given Donovan’s status and resume, it’s sparked a huge debate. Writers Mike Cardillo and Ty Duffy have taken sides over Klinsmann’s decision to leave Donovan home. 

Three Reasons Jurgen Klinsmann made the WRONG decision with Landon Donovan, by Ty Duffy:

He’s one of the 23 Best Players: Landon Donovan is arguably the greatest American soccer player. He is the greatest American World Cup player. His best attributes are experience and technical ability on the ball, two areas where the U.S. team is weak. He would have been more useful than Julian Green, who has one cap and one professional soccer appearance. He would have been more useful than Brad Davis, who has no outstanding attributes, is a career MLS player and is also 32. Donovan was one of the 23 best options. World Cup history suggests that, in a pinch, you take a flier on experienced guys who have come through under that pressure before.

The Timing Was Poor: This seems to be more than an “ability on the field” issue. Donovan has been on the outs with Klinsmann, since his rumspringa to Cambodia early in 2013. As Alexi Lalas points out, that may have been the best time to cut him loose. Instead, Landon served his penance with the Gold Cup squad last summer, scoring five goals and dominating the tournament. He worked his way back into the squad. He looked more or less like an essential part of the team…until May, when he was dropped. Was this really based on a week of training sessions? Or, if commitment was still a question, why call him up to the 30-man squad at all? Bold move to jettison a veteran star right before the tournament? Worked out great for the U.S. in 1998

Message Sent: One common defense is this sort of thing lights a fire under everyone. No one’s squad place can be taken for granted! Well, Jozy Altidore isn’t there on form. Neither is Clint Dempsey nor Jermaine Jones. Julian Green has not played enough matches at a professional to have “form.” And, anyway, constant anxiety has not been the underpinning of all great human achievement. What this move really implies is (a) Klinsmann trusts unproven Germans more than veteran Americans (b) Klinsmann still does not have a firm grip on the squad at this late stage and (c) Klinsmann is building with an eye toward 2018. Buzzkill: that draw could be just as gruesome. Maybe the Germans will have trained us a back four by then?

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Three Reasons Jurgen Klinsmann made the RIGHT decision with Landon Donovan (Mike Cardillo):

This isn’t the same Landon Donovan: Ian Darke belting out “Go Go USA” (or Gold Goal USA) is going to be the enduring memory most will have of Donovan. It was a great goal. It was an important goal. It was a goal nobody involved with U.S. Soccer will soon forget. Let’s not forget it was four years ago.

Donovan hasn’t scored in a game since October, 2013. Yes, he did score eight goals for the National Team in 2013 after coming back from his sabbatical, but five of those came vs. Guatemala, Belize, Cuba and El Salvador.

Great players losing their fastball is always sad to watch. Although Donovan’s decline isn’t quite Willie Mays tripping over second base with the Mets, he’s not the player he once was. Everyone gets old.

Klinsmann isn’t making a bold decision like this if he didn’t see evidence of Donovan’s decline. Do you really think Klinsmann would casually omit the top-goal (male) scorer in U.S. Soccer history in favor of some younger guys getting “World Cup experience” if he thought Donovan still had something left to contribute? (Granted there’s always the possibility Klinsmann was feeling nostalgic for his days coaching Bayern Munich where every one of his decisions was second and third guessed, because he’s going to catch heat for leaving out Donovan if the American stink up the joint in Brazil.)

The “super sub” theory is pure speculation: Tactically Klinsmann said early in the U.S. training camp he considered Donovan a forward — meaning he wasn’t in competition directly with Julian Green (listed as a midfielder) as everyone on the Internet wanted to argue on Thursday. Donovan wasn’t going to displace Altidore — regardless of his struggles at Sunderland — given his form on International duty, particularly the Bosnia friendly. Chris Wondolowski over Donovan? That’s a much better 1-for-1 debate.

In terms of arguments, everyone upset about the Donovan exclusion assumed he’d be a better “spark off the bench.” Yes, in our final U.S. roster projection I thought that, too. That said, it’s all guess work. Going through ESPN FC game logs, Donovan has never proven to be a huge goal scorer off the bench, despite his memorable stint for Everton in 2010 where he did indeed score as a sub in a game vs. Hull. During his U.S. career he’s played as a sub in less than 10 of his 156 caps — never scoring in those appearances. His goal-scoring record off the bench is equally fruitless in his ill-fated stints at Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich, albeit many years ago.

Assuming Donovan would come off the bench as some sort of goal-scoring angel in the 77th minute makes for a nice vision in your head, but it’s not founded in any reality.

The U.S. qualified (and played) without him before: For all the wailing and teeth-gnashing about Klinsmann’s decision, most conveniently forget Donovan walked out on the National Team ahead of qualifying in 2013. It was his choice to go surfing in Cambodia and he didn’t receive all that much criticism for it — a benefit of being a star soccer player in America. Klinsmann did give him a lifeline back with the Gold Cup and Donovan did play in qualifiers late in the run. The team still has DaMarcus Beasley, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Altidore and Dempsey (who now must perform at his top level) with prior World Cup experience — whatever that will be worth vs. Ghana, Portugal and Germany.

Strangely, dropping Donovan even with an eye toward 2018 could benefit the team in June. If you’ve paid attention, the U.S. tends to do its best at a World Cup when there is zero expectations. Everyone now assumes the U.S. will go three-and-out, however the onus will be on their opponents — the teams expected to advance — to take all three points vs. Klinsmann’s team. Few believed in the U.S. after the draw, even less after the Donovan omission. Sounds like the perfect recipe for a surprise. Let’s hope Klinsmann is crazy like a fox.

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