May 24, 2014

Time Will Vindicate Klinsmann's Decision to Omit Donovan from World Cup Roster

Juergen Klinsmann sent shockwaves through the world of U.S. soccer this week by deciding to exclude Landon Donovan from the team's roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The ramifications have been felt far and wide, on social and traditional media, water coolers and elsewhere, making the U.S. look like a real, honest-to-goodness soccer nation and leading at least one pontificator to take to Reddit and suggest the whole thing had been staged. (Reddit is great by the way. And you know the sport is being taken seriously when you have people suggesting conspiracy theories).

Many pundits have taken Klinsmann to task for omitting the Yanks' most seasoned and celebrated World Cup player. Some of these critiques were fair enough: Donovan has experience on this, the sport's grandest stage, he has been the team's best outfield player for the better part of a decade, he can mentor the younger players, etc. etc. Others were less plausible. Then you had one that was downright laughable: Klinsmann was criticized (criticized!) for having the gall to select the team with an eye to 2018. That's right, people are outraged that a U.S. national team coach actually plan for the long term. Many of these people are the same ones who lament the lack of long-term vision by U.S. soccer and cite that as a reason why the USMNT will never challenge for a World Cup.

First off, if anybody deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to long-term visions, it's Klinsmann. His methods were mocked and criticized at first, his personnel decisions questioned, and when the U.S. got off to a slow start in World Cup qualifying those voices intensified. One idiot even said it would be a good thing if the U.S. failed to qualify for Brazil! But Klinsmann stuck to his guns and sure enough, things started to gell. The team started to play the more entertaining, attacking style espoused by its head coach. Players who had literally been the butt of fans' jokes (see Beckerman, Kyle) took to their specific roles envisioned by Klinsmann and made the team better as a result. The Yanks steamrolled the rest of their qualifying competition, accomplishing something that had only been achieved once before in World Cup qualifying (a draw at the Estadio Azteca) and finished in first place in the Hex.

In the midst of this, Landon Donovan decided to take a sabbatical. This was well within his rights of course, just like it's well within anybody else's rights to question his commitment to the team. He previously said playing in the 2014 World Cup wasn't a priority. Then he changed his mind and came back to the team. Again, fair enough. People change their minds all the time. Sometimes even pundits and bloggers do. But Klinsmann didn't have to take Donovan back at all. When he did, the results were suspect. Donovan was visibly slower than before. More importantly, he no longer had a clear role in Klinsmann's carefully-engineered system (or Konzept, as the German's call it. A term that means concept, blueprint, vision and user manual all in one). This, more than anything, was likely what doomed Donovan's chances of making the U.S. squad.

There may have very well been other factors, particularly personal ones, that led to Klinsmann's decision to omit Donovan. But ultimately it is justified when the bigger picture is taken into view. That bigger picture is Klinsmann's vision of how to make the U.S. a world soccer power. Donovan simply does not fit into that picture anymore. Thus the only arguments in favor of including him become sentimental/emotional ones. Do we really need to remind you of the priority of such factors in the German decision-making process? Can there now be any doubt why Donovan wasn't named to the team?

In Brazil, the U.S. faces a "group of death" where it will be difficult to get results. The team has several promising young players but only one or two (Bradley, Howard) in the prime of their careers. It is moving from a system where it relied heavily on one player (Donovan) to one that stresses a more collective whole. This system (or Gesamtkonzept, to get all German on you again) needs to be given air, light and breathing space to develop and ultimately reach fruition. Eventually the idea is for it to become something that players are matched to, rather than the other way around. We have seen this idea fulfilled with great success in the Spanish national team and at Barcelona and Bayern Munich (and to a certain extent with the German national team). This is Klinsmann's vision for the U.S. as well and one he should be applauded for taking. In Brazil, we will see the next stage of its evolution. Maybe the U.S. will manage to get results and even qualify for the elimination round. More likely, the team will finish third or fourth. At this stage of his career Donovan will not have been able to change that. Better then, to go with the blueprint for the future and leave sentimentality at home. Yeah Donovan was a great World Cup player for the U.S. But that's in the past. Klinsmann is moving this team to the future.

In 2010, Vicente del Bosque famously omitted Raul from Spain's World Cup squad. Raul was the country's most seasoned and historically successful striker. It worked out all right in the end as Spain hoisted its first World Cup trophy. Soccer, particularly the brand practiced by del Bosque and Klinsmann, is a team sport where a unifying system trumps individuality. By hiring Klinsmann to be its head coach (and then extending his contract), U.S. soccer has bought in to this vision. It's showed great promise so far. Let's give it a chance to blossom.


  1. The USA is not 2010 Spain, we dont have guys just ready to step up and take Donovan's place.

  2. Excellent piece of writing that!

    I definitely agree with your view and I can't wait to see how US Soccer will develop over the next decade. I sense a touch of belief in the US Squad, they look like they know they're getting out of the World Cup Group. Jurgen has something to do with that. Landon was a special player, but he just hasn't shown that this season. All his comments were rather apathetic towards playing in Brazil and its hard to me to think he couldn't have helped somehow when we were up against it. A lot of us forget we aren't with these guys everyday, watching them practice, seeing their habits and how they interacting with each other. Unless we are told by a journalist, we have no clue about the inner workings of the squad. There's no primary information we can base our opinions on. Jurgen is with this team everyday right now. Its his job to pick the 23 players that give us a best chance to win. I'd reckon he knows more about football than 99% of the world and it looks like he has America's future interest in mind. We'll march onward to Brazil. We'd have liked to see Landon have a few more magical WC moments, but this is about what is best for the team.

    In Jurgen We Trust