It has been days, and still the decision to not include Landon Donovan in the US National team going to Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup is a talking point.
As I have talked with fans and players alike, and read more than a few articles - some rather fire-breathing - I must admit I am more confused than when the discussion began, but I do know a few things more than when I wrote my first article - enough that I felt it worth another piece.
Before I go into that, though, I want to say that I have no direct knowledge of Landon Donovan or Jurgen Klinsmann, or anyone involved with the current US National Team program, so everything you see here is me doing as you probably are - sifting through various facts and details that are not continuous and contiguous. In fact, the quotes below are from the ESPN "Inside: US Soccer's March to Brazil" and therefore are not directly in context of "Why was Donovan left off the team."
I am going to break these into two groups of themes. The first group will continue where I left off in my previous article - possible reasons for Klinsmann's decision. The second group will touch on the concerns I am left with after evaluating the first group.
But I want to highlight something - I learned a long time ago not to make concrete judgments about a coach, certainly not without being in the middle of the practices and training sessions, and with the coaching background that professional coaches have, and with an intimate knowledge of the players themselves.
That comes from seeing things at the local level in Dallas (six different head coaches over nineteen seasons) and from the Korea and Germany World Cups, as well as various other matches in the US. Time and again, things impacted the way the teams played that there simply was no way to see from the outside. This may very well be another one of those times.
The Arguments For The Decision
Not a lot has changed in the public reasons for leaving Donovan off the roster, but certainly the vitriol has risen. Throw in Donovan scoring MLS goals 135 and 136 - breaking the record for most goals by a player in league history - and you have a cauldron of discussion all across the Twitterverse, Facebook and the internet.
But we do seem to have more details fleshed out for what I break into three different reasons why Donovan may have been left off the roster.
It is probably unfair, but Donovan has been dogged by complaints that he hasn't shown consistent, professional grit - specifically, he hasn't taken on the challenge of European football and found a way to stick. I have always felt that this is unfair in large part because what it takes to make it to be a professional athlete is amazing - the physical work, the skill work, the mentality. It takes monumental grit to get to where Donovan has been in MLS and for the US.
But in this moment, the past doesn't matter. What matters is does (the player in question) have the (specific variable) to help the US National Team succeed in the toughest group in the 2014 FIFA World Cup?
And in this situation, does Donovan have the grit to keep pace with Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey?
"We have to know what it means to compete at the highest level," Bradley said in the aforementioned ESPN piece. "We have to be a group that is ready to stick together and fight like a bunch of warriors together for 90 minutes."
"I've always been taken by athletes who aren't necessarily the best, the most skillful, the most talented players, but the ones who know what it means to compete and fight."
I can't even say I know anything about this topic other than I know it is an open question. Considering the waves of support Donovan has been getting, from all over the place including public statements from players like Bradley and goalkeeper Tim Howard, I am tempted to say this is the least likely of the three, but there is enough there that I feel it must be mentioned.
"When we get to Brazil, those three games, the biggest thing is going to be our togetherness," Tim Howard said, again from the ESPN piece. "All the rest of it, we will have done. We will have done all the running, our lungs will be filled, we'll have the strength. Its going to be the togetherness."
This is another topic that there really is no way to know from the outside, but is Landon Donovan able to play at a high level, consistently? He took a sabbatical for a reason, and clearly credit should be given to him for recognizing that and going and doing it. And you have to admit, he looked rather strong Sunday night. But one quote struck me the most from the ESPN piece, and this is probably the one that is most on point and most germane to the conversation. Of all the quotes, this one is clearly in context.
"Jurgen has made it clear to me that he needs me to be consistent and performing, "Donovan said. "Sometimes its a little difficult for me. I can't train 12 straight days in a row and have 12 straight great days in a row. Physically, its not possible. My body breaks down, I'm getting older."
"I want to make sure that when I get to camp in May that I'm performing at my absolute best."
And that is probably the ultimate question - was he?
But I am left with some lingering questions. Ultimately, while the reasons above may give why he isn't a first choice starter, I - and I think most who question the decision - can't seem to shake the feeling that he still has a lot more to bring to the team than players who are less experienced, less well-rounded, less skilled or less athletic. I am not going to name names, but I think we all know different players that those terms could apply to.
And here is where I get uneasy, because when you look at the successes of the US national team in the World Cup, so much of it leans on depth, where being able to play a fresh player is the difference between getting out of a group or not.
My most vivid moment of me learning "I know not what the coach should do" was the USA-Portugal match in 2002. I happened into some information before the game - that Claudio Reyna, Earnie Stewart and Clint Mathis were not going to be available for the game. I was floored. We were scared enough of the Golden Generation of Portugal as it was - don't take away our No. 10 and two of the best players on the roster too!
But then, the game that awoke a soccer nation happened, with a certain Landon Donovan playing an integral role. This was the youthful, inexperienced, but supremely talented kid that coach Bruce Arena had force fed minutes throughout the post-qualification process. It seemed almost every match in preparation for Korea included significant time for Donovan, and it paid off in spades. Of course, it wasn't just Donovan that day, but he surely was a big part.
So on one hand, I want to give Klinsmann the benefit of the doubt as so often, it has been made clear to me that coaching professional soccer is a high art and no amount of research will make Monday Morning Centerbacking effective. I know I had a lot of doubts about the young Landon Donovan as Arena kept giving him game after game after game in the lead up to 2002.
But I can't help think that after we have played Ghana, and gotten a result, that in the next two games - massive matches against the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the world - being able to start Donovan would bring more to the table than to start someone who currently has zero World Cup experience, someone who doesn't bring the range of skill or athleticism or experience playing alongside Dempsey, Bradley, etc.
Personally, I don't think it was Donovan over the youthful players. I *think* it was other players that Klinsmann believes will be a better part of the overall unit, come off the bench strong when asked to, not start and still be ready to go 100% when his name is called, whether it is because of a perception of a drop in form of Donovan, or whether it is the up and down nature of his ability over the last years, or ultimately is it this - a perception that Donovan wants to be the lead dog, isn't any more, and like many many many other former greats, isn't able to make that transition that other players in the US kit have to a smaller role.
And only time will tell whether Klinsmann got it right. I do maintain my somewhat blind faith in a coaching staff that is that professional, has that experience, including World Cup experience. I am sure he has sounded out some in his his leadership cadre and gotten their take on whether Donovan should be in the 23, and has more than just personal reasons for keeping one of the greatest players to ever wear the US kit out of this World Cup.
But after more than a few days to marinate on this, I can't shake a feeling of unease that maybe we over-emphasized certain issues at the expense of the overall equation - that the World Cup is a grind of epic proportions, and in this World Cup, the US faces a tougher group than they have ever faced, and a player of Donovan's ability and experience can be managed into a situation where he is a motivated, energized part of a collective heartbeat that can get the all important results against Portugal or Germany, or if the US finds a way to advance, against its opponent in the Round of 16.
And if not, is that a reflection of Donovan, or Klinsmann?