Landon Donovan has been the face of American soccer for a decade, but in a jarring decision announced Thursday, Coach Juergen Klinsmann cut the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer from the World Cup roster.
Donovan, a forward and midfielder seeking to play in a fourth Cup, was among seven players released — and by far the most surprising — as Klinsmann finalized his 23-man squad for Brazil more than a week before the deadline.
Donovan, 32, has provided some of the greatest moments in U.S. soccer history, from his breakout performance during the Americans’ quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea to his epic last-minute goal against Algeria that prevented elimination in the group stage of the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
“It’s certainly one of the toughest decisions in my coaching career, to tell a player like him, with everything he has done and what he represents, that you are not part of those 23 right now,” Klinsmann said in a video posted on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s Web site. “I just see some other players slightly ahead of him.”
Klinsmann passed over the Los Angeles Galaxy star in favor of players such as Brad Davis, a veteran left wing for the Houston Dynamo; Julian Green, a 19-year-old midfielder and forward from Bayern Munich’s reserve squad; French-based midfielder Alejandro Bedoya; and Chris Wondolowski, MLS’s most prolific scorer for several years. None has any World Cup experience.
“I was looking forward to playing in Brazil, and as you can imagine, I am very disappointed with today’s decision,” Donovan said in a statement Thursday night. “Regardless, I will be cheering on my friends and teammates.”
On Monday, Donovan had told reporters at training camp at Stanford University: “I’m deserving to be a part of the squad, but I have to prove that, and I have to earn it.”
Donovan is the U.S. career leader in World Cup appearances (12) and goals (five).
Klinsmann is expected to answer media questions about the decision Friday at Stanford, where the U.S. team has been conducting workouts leading to the World Cup opener June 16 against Ghana in Natal, Brazil.
The deadline to finalize the roster is June 2, but Klinsmann retains some flexibility up to 24 hours before the opener in Brazil should an injury arise.
Klinsmann also cut defenders Clarence Goodson (W.T. Woodson High, University of Maryland), Brad Evans and Michael Parkhurst; midfielders Maurice Edu (Maryland) and Joe Corona; and forward Terrence Boyd. Goodson and Edu were on the 2010 World Cup squad.
Despite his place in U.S. lore, not to mention 57 goals in 156 international matches, Donovan was not certain to make this year’s team. Since taking a sabbatical from soccer two years ago, he has had to work his way back into Klinsmann’s good graces. He featured in the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer, joining several second-tier players, and returned to the primary group for the late stage of World Cup qualifying.
This year, the first sign of Klinsmann’s uncertainty about Donovan’s World Cup status came last month when Donovan did not start in a friendly against Mexico, even though first-tier European-based players were not on the roster. Donovan had been hampered by a knee injury and did not show well in practice leading up to the match.
In MLS, Donovan is scoreless in seven regular season matches. With his next goal, he will become the league’s all-time leading scorer.
Though neither side acknowledged it, there was persistent speculation in U.S. circles that Klinsmann questioned Donovan’s commitment to the program and his coaching philosophy.
Asked Monday whether his relationship with Klinsmann was strained, Donovan said: “That was not true.”
True or not, Donovan still figured to have a good chance of making the squad because of his capacity to change the game with pace and creativity. Last week Klinsmann said Donovan was in his corps of potential forwards for Brazil.
When he informed Donovan of his decision, Klinsmann said, “his disappointment is huge. I totally understand that. He took it very professional. He knows I have the highest respect for him, but I have to make the decisions for what is good today for this group going into Brazil.”
Donovan’s omission came 10 days after Klinsmann declined to invite veteran forward Eddie Johnson (D.C. United) to training camp. Johnson shared the U.S. team lead in appearances last year and scored the critical first goal against Mexico in September when the Americans secured their seventh consecutive World Cup appearance.
The other surprise Thursday was the inclusion of DeAndre Yedlin, 20, a fleet-footed right back from the Seattle Sounders. He beat out Evans, his MLS teammate who appeared in five qualifiers, and Parkhurst, a versatile back from the Columbus Crew.
In their pre-Brazil tests, the Americans will face Azerbaijan on Tuesday in San Francisco; Turkey on June 1 in Harrison, N.J.; and Nigeria on June 7 in Jacksonville, Fla.