Monday 19th May 2014 started out like most others for Landon Donovan. As with the last three World Cup years before this one, Donovan was with the 30 man US national team at their World Cup camp at Stanford University that had started, under the strict guidance of coach Jürgen Klinsmann, five days earlier. The experienced Donovan, who has been a mainstay in the US team since his debut in 2000, is one of the most recognisable American footballers of all time and certainly the face of American soccer for the last decade.
His country’s leading goalscorer and creator with 57 goals and 58 assists, Donovan also has the second most appearances for the USMNT, a colossal 136. His influence on football in the United States of America cannot be understated. Despite turning 32 in March, over the previous couple of years Donovan has remained a permanent fixture for his country as they successfully qualified for their seventh World Cup in succession. Having featured in eight of his side LA Galaxy’s ten games in this season’s MLS, Donovan had his eyes firmly set on spending his summer in Brazil trying to sneak the USA out of their extremely tough group featuring Germany, Portugal and Ghana. However, that was all about to change.
By the evening of Thursday 22nd May Landon Donovan’s dream of competing in a fourth World Cup had come to an abrupt end. As Jürgen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner in 1990, announced his 23 man squad the biggest name in American football was unceremoniously missing from his list. To add insult to injury the names of unproven youngsters DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green, the latter of whom has never featured in the first team for his club Bayern Munich, with a combined three national team appearances between them featured ahead of Donovan.
Donovan’s omission sent shock waves through the American footballing community. Klinsmann offered no explanation as to why he left one of the team’s most important players at home and his decision has been met with shock from many including former USA international Brian McBride and has been called a mistake by prominent American football journalist Grant Wahl. Many have seen Donovan’s omission as a personal issue between Klinsmann and Donovan and a possible issue of mistrust between the two stemming from an impromptu hiatus from football called by Donovan in October 2012. Citing mental and physical exhaustion, Donovan left his national team in the lurch as they went to face (and eventually lose) an important World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
Others have interpreted Klinsmann’s decision to leave Donovan out as bold move to look towards the future of football in the USA. As Klinsmann did in 2006 as the national team manager of his native Germany, he has decided to integrate young players into the national team and let them taste international tournaments much earlier than normal in a bid to help them mature quicker and let them be much less phased by international tournaments in the future. This decision could be quite a pertinent decision considering the USA’s tough group at this summer’s World Cup and the fact that Klinsmann has signed a contract extension until 2018 when he will hope to lead the USA to the World Cup in Russia.
Donovan himself reacted graciously, as is befitting with his character on and off the pitch, yet admitted that he was disappointed to have missed out and that he disagreed with Klinsmann’s choice. In his first public comments Donovan said;
Based on my performances leading up to camp, based on my preparation for the camp, based on my fitness, based on my workload, based on the way I trained and played in camp, I not only thought I was a part of the 23, I thought I was in contention to be starting.
Donovan’s place in the 23 is easily justifiable. His international experience, versatility and likable presence in the dressing room would have offered Klinsmann a reliable and helpful squad member. Donovan’s current manager and former USMNT coach Bruce Arena commented to the San Jose Mercury News omission stating that “If there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup”.
By Sunday 25th May, Donovan showed exactly what the US men’s national team will be missing in Brazil by netting his 135th goal, and later his 136th, in the MLS which broke Major League Soccer’s all-time goal scoring record during a performance that typified Donovan as a player.
Breaking the record will come as no remedy for watching his team mates playing in Brazil but it will surely be a nice ending to a torrid week and will cement Donovan, even more than he already was, as one of the greats of American football.
Will he be missed in Brazil? We will all have to watch and find out…