The U.S. national soccer team program is a Honda Accord: reliable, sturdy, mid-market, predictable and, let’s face it, relatively average.
On July 29, 2011, the U.S. Soccer Federation handed the keys to Juergen Klinsmann, a pragmatic driver willing to push the vehicle beyond its limits. The USSF was not expecting Klinsmann to construct a Ferrari; the engine and design are not available in American red, white and blue. It was hoping, though, he would not only map a new course, but provide a more interesting journey.
Klinsmann met his goals and reached the destination, next month’s World Cup in Brazil. But after replacing the team’s high-octane fuel this week, career scoring leader Landon Donovan, with untested additives, Klinsmann might have flooded the engine.
And AAA is not offering service against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“I have to do what I believe is the right thing as of today and time will tell now over the next seven weeks if it was the right move, if it was the right decisions on players, on technical approaches,” Klinsmann said during a news conference Friday that revolved largely around Donovan’s omission from the 23-man World Cup squad.
“I am very strongly convinced this is the right way to go, this is the right decision.”
In place of Donovan, the program’s most accomplished player, Klinsmann named several attackers with no World Cup experience and far fewer national team appearances. The coaching staff “felt like there are guys who are a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas,” he said from training camp at Stanford University.
Pressed on the issue, he added Donovan “maybe is not the one now anymore to go one against one all the time or going into the box or finishing off [chances]. He brings other values to the table: his outstanding passing game, his experience and other elements. He has changed his game over the last four years, which is normal at that stage of his career. He has done an amazing job the last 10 days since he has been here; he has done everything right.”
But not enough to make the 23-man squad, which faces a daunting task in the group stage in Brazil.
Donovan is past his prime but remains one of American soccer’s most exciting performers. Tim Howard and Michael Bradley have said Donovan is critical to the team’s success.
Donovan, however, has never been fully in Klinsmann’s good graces. He took a leave of absence from soccer two years ago and, at times, seemed lukewarm about his desire to resume his national team career. Sports Illustrated suggested friction between the men stemmed from Donovan’s underwhelming tenure with Bayern Munich in 2009 when Klinsmann was coaching the Bundesliga titans.
Are the alternatives to Donovan any better, though?
Klinsmann’s assessment of Julian Green, an 18-year-old Bayern prospect, tells volumes about his trust in the younger generation.
“We played a lot of small-sided games, a lot of competitive games, and games [in which] you can’t hide,” Klinsmann said. “Julian didn’t hide, not even one second. There was never a comparison [to Donovan] because he’s just different, he brings a different element to the game, and we are excited about it.”
Furthermore, he said the young players “are up to the task. Emotionally, it’s a lot to handle, but we’ve got to run them through that process. They are ready for it. … Some of them have a learning curve ahead of them. They are ready for that learning curve and they might surprise some people out there.”
Klinsmann will not necessarily start Green in Donovan’s projected place; he has experienced players, such as captain Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Graham Zusi, as well as Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson (both 23) to fill the void.
But some personnel decisions suggest Klinsmann is looking beyond Brazil to the 2018 tournament in Russia, when young players will near their peak. He is, after all, under contract through the next World Cup – a rarity in international soccer. Such a deal would not prevent the federation from firing him, but it does show a firm belief in his long-term philosophy, regardless of this summer’s results.
Unrelated to the Donovan decision, Klinsmann selected three defenders with 15 combined national team appearances: John Brooks, 21, DeAndre Yedlin, 20, and Timothy Chandler, 24.
Age did not come into play in Klinsmann’s curious choice of Brad Davis over Donovan; they’re both 32. Like Donovan does at times, Davis plays on the left side of midfield. He serves an expert cross but lacks Donovan’s technical skills. In this case, Klinsmann seemed to favor a specialist who is comfortable in a reserve role and won’t stir debate if he doesn’t play.
But Klinsmann also noted, in general, he chose players who are in better form at the moment. Davis is enjoying another fine season in Houston, while Donovan has not scored for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Since his appointment almost three years ago, Klinsmann has made several bold decisions. He phased out captain Carlos Bocanegra, declined to invite veteran Eddie Johnson to training camp last week and has implemented a more courageous attacking style by nudging players out of their comfort zones.
It has not always been a smooth ride. Last year, two days before a World Cup qualifier in Denver, several players spoke anonymously to The Sporting News about schisms in the squad and concerns with the team’s direction.
By the time the Americans defeated nemesis Mexico in September to secure passage to Brazil, those problems had been largely forgotten. The Donovan episode, however, provided a reminder of Klinsmann’s ambitions – and the risks that go with them.
More on the U.S. soccer team:
Photo gallery: The 2014 U.S. World Cup roster
Fancy Stats: Donovan wasn’t the only roster snub