It would have been the easy move.
Just throw Landon Donovan on the roster, regardless of how he matched up to the players occupying the other 22 spots on the United States Men’s National Team roster, and save yourself from the scathing waves of criticism.
Just do it.
It’d be simple, painless, and almost thoughtless.
Instead, he’s gone.
Since he burst onto the scene in the early 2000’s, scoring goals for the San Jose Earthquakes with what was then a full head of hair and a star quality not seen before in an American player, Landon Donovan was American soccer.
He scored the most famous goal in American soccer’s history that didn’t involve a sports bra, causing me, a marginal football fan at best, to run screaming up the street chanting “USA! USA! USA!”
He played (and continues to play) in Major League Soccer, a lower-level league that for a while was not worthy of his talents, at least in part because it was America’s league.
Landon Donovan, to an appreciable degree, is responsible for the growth of soccer in America. ESPN’s brilliant docu-series on the USMNT, Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March To Brazil, noted that soccer has been “the game of the future” for the United States since their debut in the 1950 World Cup, some 64 years ago. Obviously, soccer’s popularity didn’t make the jump some had predicted.
But when we look at soccer today in America, it’s the 4th most watched sport behind the big three: football, baseball, and basketball. Over three million kids are members of US Youth soccer, and the 2009 census said that soccer is the third most participated in sport in America.
Just the fact that a documentary series on the national team’s buildup to the World Cup on “the worldwide leader in sports” exists tells you something about the popularity of the world’s game here.
Some of that credit has to go to a man who commentator Ray Hudson recently referred to as “the best footballer of all time in the United States.”
Yesterday, by leaving off America’s greatest star who undoubtedly has earned his stripes, Jurgen Klinsmann told the world he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of that.
He doesn’t care that Donovan is America’s most recognizable player, that Donovan has scored 57 international goals (the most of any American and 19 more goals than the second place finisher, 2014 World Cup captain Clint Dempsey), or that Donovan has more World Cup goals (5) than Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney combined (3).
Klinsmann doesn’t care that cutting Donovan basically set the internet ablaze, garnering violent reactions from fans and commentators alike.
Klinsmann, while understanding the magnitude of the move, was pretty cutthroat.
“I have to make the decisions what is good today for this group going into Brazil,” Klinsmann said. “And there I just think that the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him.”
Where’s the emotion in that?
There really isn’t any.
You see America, Jurgen Klinsmann must think his gang of red, white and blue footballers can really do something in this World Cup. Something big.
Otherwise, why remove Donovan? There would be none of these distractions, bad press, and the fans would remain firmly united.
Instead he made a move that breeds divide, controversy, and discussion.
Of course Klinsmann thinks his team can go far, but a move so drastic really shows the public juuuuust how much he thinks of his squad.
Klinsmann has put himself and his team on trial for the duration of their run. A group stage exit with Donovan would have been disappointing, but somewhat understandable given the formidable foes in Group G (Ghana, Portugal, Germany).
But a first round exit combined with the disposal of American soccer’s favorite son might just be enough to push Klinsmann out the door and hurt the popularity soccer searches so desperately to capture in America.
This move is purely personnel. Klinsmann, the former star striker for West Germany, regardless of any opposite opinion, popularity, legacy, or job status, believes in the talents of 23 men more than the talents of Landon Donovan.
In fact, I’m not sure their’s a move Klinsmann could have made that would show more confidence in America’s unproven talents, players like 18-year-old Julian Green, 23-year-old Aron Johannson and MLS star Chris Wondowloski.
Jurgen Klinsmann clearly has success above all else on his mind.
If his team embodies that mindset, they are certainly capable of an unprecedented run down in Brazil, giving Klinsmann the legitimacy his current coaching career lacks.
But should he fail, he’ll have a whole lot more in his lap than any other coach of the USMNT has had before.
I think that’s just the way he wants it.
Sidenote: Perhaps Klinsmann is saving us from watching one the most painful things in sports, the aging superstar. While Landon Donovan was no international immortal, he is adored nationally. Watching a slower, declining Donovan was a possibility, and now is something off of our consciences.
Nobody looks up Willie Mays’s Mets highlights, or watches Ichiro with any great interest nowadays. We don’t like to watch the end.
But we’ll always have that Donovan goal against Algeria, and the sprinting celebration culminating in a corner dog pile that sent bars and restaurants all across the nation into jubilant disarray.
Thank you Landon Donovan, for that and so much more.