Landon Donovan, widely considered the best male player in the history of U.S. soccer, was cut from the World Cup team Thursday as coach Jurgen Klinsmann trimmed his roster to 23 players.
Donovan is the career leader for the national team with 57 goals and 58 assists. At 32, with 156 international appearances, he was seeking to play in the World Cup for the fourth time. At his best, Donovan possessed great vision, threatening speed and a flair for the dramatic, as evidenced by his late goal against Algeria to send the United States to the second round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Still, to anyone following the national team closely, Donovan’s exclusion did not come as a great surprise, whether one agreed or disagreed with the decision.
Klinsmann had openly questioned whether Donovan’s desire, commitment and skill had ebbed to the point that less-experienced forwards like Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson deserved instead to be named to the World Cup team along with Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey.
“I was looking forward to playing in Brazil, and as you can imagine, I am very disappointed with today’s decision,” Donovan said on his Facebook page. “Regardless, I will be cheering on my friends and teammates this summer, and I remain committed to helping grow soccer in the U.S. in the years to come.”
In a somewhat surprising move, right back Brad Evans was also cut Thursday, along with forward Terrence Boyd, midfielders Joe Corona and Maurice Edu, and defenders Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst.
As the United States opened its training camp recently ahead of next month’s World Cup in Brazil, Klinsmann made clear to reporters that all roster spots would have to be earned and that none would be handed out as career achievement awards.
He had also come to view Donovan as a forward, no longer as an attacking midfielder, a role in which Donovan was often menacing as he splayed the middle of a defense or raced down the flank.
“I just see some other players slightly ahead of him,” Klinsmann told The Associated Press on Thursday. He added: “He knows I have the highest respect for him. But I have to make the decisions as of today. What is good today for this group going into Brazil.”
Recently, Klinsmann told reporters that “there’s no doubt what he did for U.S. soccer” with the national team and with Los Angeles and San Jose in winning five titles in Major League Soccer.
“It’s amazing,” Klinsmann said. “You give him every compliment he deserves. But soccer is about what you do today, and what you hopefully do tomorrow. We’re not building the group based on the past; we’re building the group based on what we go through together and what we believe, as of today, is the right decision.”
Donovan did not endear himself to Klinsmann by taking a self-imposed four-month sabbatical from soccer in December 2012. He returned and played superbly in the 2013 Gold Cup last summer, but he was relegated to reserve duty last month for a friendly against Mexico. At the time, Klinsmann said that Donovan lacked speed and insistence in training, hampered by a balky knee. He also appeared heavier than in the past.
Donovan did not have an auspicious start to the current MLS season. Klinsmann also appeared concerned that Donovan lacked motivation and was too willing to accept a lesser role on the national team. As Ridge Mahoney of Soccer America has pointed out, Klinsmann, a native of Germany, has also questioned Donovan’s toughness, especially after his inconsequential stints in the German Bundesliga.
Still, Donovan’s presence has always brought reassurance to the national team, not to mention five goals scored in the World Cup.
His absence could add more vulnerability to a fragile team that has historically struggled to score in the tournament. No U.S. forward has delivered a goal in the World Cup since 2002.
Recently, goalkeeper Tim Howard predicted that Donovan would be a key to the United States’ chances in a difficult World Cup group with Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
“If Landon is on the field, he’s our top one or two players,” Howard told reporters.
Immediately, Klinsmann faced some criticism from some in the news media for cutting Donovan. Grant Wahl, a longtime soccer writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote that the decision would prove to be a mistake.
Donovan “may or may not be starter quality for the U.S. anymore,” Wahl wrote, “but he figured to be at least a useful player to bring off the bench in Brazil with his vision and experience.”
Always candid and introspective, Donovan had seemed both resigned and excited in speaking to reporters in recent days. While conceding that injury and age had tempered his skill, and that he might have to play as a reserve, he said he remained confident in his ability and thought he deserved to be on the World Cup team.
Still, he told reporters, “I have to prove that, and I have to earn it.”
While he did not have the youthful energy and excitement that accompanied his first appearance in the World Cup, in 2002, Donovan said, “I see the game and I see the situation a lot more clearly now, so I’m able to, I think, enjoy it more in that way.”
In addition to the four forwards, the U.S. World Cup roster will include midfielders Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Mix Diskerud, Julian Green, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi; defenders DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin; and goalkeepers Brad Guzan, Howard and Nick Romando.
Follow us on Twitter: