Neil W. Blackmon
First things first.
Here is the 2014 US Men’s National Team named this afternoon by Jurgen Klinsmann for the World Cup in Brazil.
Tim Howard (Everton, England), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa, England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake, MLS)
DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla, Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City, MLS), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin, Germany), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City, England), Timothy Chandler (Nürnberg), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy, MLS), Fabian Johnson (BorussiaMönchengladbach, Germany), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders, MLS)
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake, MLS), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes, France), Michael Bradley (Toronto, MLS), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo, MLS), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg, Norway), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas, Turkey), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City, MLS)
Jozy Altidore (Sunderland, England), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders, MLS), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar, Holland), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS)
Gene Hackman Norman Dale puts it in Hoosiers:
“This isn’t about who isn’t here. This is about who is here. This is your team.”
If only it were that simple.
Jurgen Klinsmann doubled-down on youth, selecting a largely inexperienced team that he likely feels includes plenty of hunger and fire, and that does not include the face of US Soccer for a decade, Landon Donovan. Donovan, the leading scorer in the history of US Soccer and a player who has scored five goals in twelve World Cup matches, is by far the most stunning omission and in many ways, the centerpiece of any discussion about the 23 selected. Count TYAC among those who feel this is a mistake.
Forget for a moment “Goal, Goal USA!!!” (but only for a moment) and let the nostalgia of this omission sink in. As Noah Davis wrote yesterday at Grantland, among the many compelling stories at the World Cup this summer is the end of the” “Donovan/Dempsey/Howard” era, a rather historic run for US Soccer that included, beginning with Donovan- a run to the 2002 World Cup Quarterfinals and included the US’ first group-winning World Cup side in the modern era in 2010.
That we won’t see that era sent off in style– or even with a whimper– is a stunning reversal– one that deprives the US of a Hollywood-dream, endorsement-driving “Last Chargeof Wyatt Earp and his Immortals” after Doc Holiday has vanquished Johnny Ringo in Tombstone…
and instead (raises the question: What next? What next for US Soccer without their face and so-often over the last decade-plus their pulse? What next for a coveted-by-the-federation manager, who won the only knockout stage-style tournament he’s managed for the Yanks on the back of the very player he’s now left at home?
Klinsmann’s answer appears to be youth and a new era, one that beckons back to comments he made in the aftermath of the US’ exit in 2010…
Except that one of the players brought in his stead, playing a position Donovan himself may have manned in, is Brad Davis, a 32 year old longtime MLS veteran from the Houston Dynamo whose main claim to international-level soccer fame is a cultured left foot and the ability to deliver set piece service. A fine MLS player in his own right, Davis would likely admit that in other areas- work rate (even today, as Donovan has slowed down), on-ball vision and touch, finishing– there’s simply no comparison between the two players. Yet Klinsmann brought the Dynamo man and left Landon at home.
You are right if in reading that you suggest roster selections aren’t made with “like for like” or “position for position” type substitutions in mind– it’s not really “Wins Above Replacement”, to borrow the baseball metric. But World Cup rosters are in essence about a manager bringing his “preferred 23”, as Ray Hudson puts it– and it is telling Davis is preferred to Klinsmann over the legendary Donovan.
Beyond the inclusion of this player over Donovan or that player over Donovan, there is the possibility this creates an enormous distraction. I asked Alexi Lalas recently what cost the United States most in 1998 (when the team entered the tournament reasonably well-thought of and finished dead last) and his answer was simple: “Chemistry.”
This type of thing matters on all teams but even more so in international soccer- a sport that more than any on earth is reduced to excruciating, pressure-packed small sample sizes. Margins for error are slim to none because you only are given three matches and even slimmer for teams like the Yanks who have technically so little room for mistakes. A poisonous locker room, like the one John Harkes ushered in for the ill-fated American team in 1998, can devastate a dressing room.
The US was going to have some chemistry and cohesion issues to sort out in the three Send-Off Series matches regardless of when the roster was released. Timothy Chandler’s inclusion, as I wrote last week, potentially raises issues given his lack of commitment and disinterest in the side since his humbling performance against Honduras in the winter of 2013. Those issues are heightened when one considers that Donovan is thought to have paid his penance at the Gold Cup in 2013, where he helped Klinsmann win the continental championship for the US for the first time since 2007. A World Cup camp is an odd and difficult proving ground for skeptical teammates, no matter how many times you say the right thing.
Julian Green’s inclusion in this roster also could generate chemistry concerns. He’s eighteen and by all accounts a sweetheart of a kid. He’s immensely talented and his future is a blank page, but he’s played half an hour in a US Shirt and been a member of the US Soccer team for just over a month. There are plenty of guys at home who went through the qualifying grind, weathering the Snow Classicos and the hostile dark half-light haunts of Central American CONCACAF road matches together, and plenty of the men in the team who battled along side them may fight the urge to hold a grudge. That’s human nature.
John Brooks, whose never shown much in a US Shirt, could apply here as well, regardless of the gravitational pull of his personality. He’s a “JaMarcus Russell” combine-talent: a guy whose measurables Klinsmann hasn’t been able to resist. He was so out of form and out-of-sync attitude wise that just months ago he was relegated to the reserve team at Hertha Berlin. To his credit, he fought back, and played what was easily the best soccer of his career in the month leading up to the US camp. For that, he was given a spot in camp, and now a spot on the team, preferred by Klinsmann over consistent if not glamorous Clarence Goodson, whose fought the qualifying wars and Michael Parkhurst, who is a more flexible defender capable at each spot in the back four and who, in your author’s view, is one of the more gifted technical defenders the US have ever produced.
Finally, either the most, or second-most respected player in terms of veteran leadership on the US team called Landon Donovan one of the best two players the US have this week. Whether Tim Howard can rally his teammates together after telling the media that in the aftermath is a fair question.
There’s also the pure soccer side of the decision. Yes, Landon Donovan has not scored this year for the Galaxy. Yes, at times he’s looked slow and unfit. But he’s still an influential player and a threat to score. As the graphic here demonstrates…
— L P (@expectdelay) May 22, 2014
Donovan’s influence has been leagues ahead of most US players in the past two years of the World Cup cycle. Granted, a great deal of that comes in the Gold Cup- but there’s a flip side to that argument: note Bedoya’s inclusion on that list. Then think of “hockey assists.” How many Bedoya passes and scoring chances stemmed from Donovan running at defenders and finding the Nantes man playing wide? A good deal, if you watch the film.
When you think about Donovan’s omission– you have to think about this tournament and the demands of the “Group of Death.” It helps, I think to, say the following out loud:
Twenty minutes to play in Recife. US have four points. Need a goal to avoid being eliminated on goal differential. Klinsmann looks to his bench and points at… Julian Green?
“Get out there, Julian. You train with some of these guys. You know what to do. (TACTICAL INSTRUCTIONS). Express yourself.”
Sorry if I’m not buying. I’d rather have Landon Donovan in that spot. Because…”Goal, Goal USA!!” Because…more goals than Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney in the World Cup. Combined. Because…he has a grand sense of occasion. Because…that’s an awfully difficult spot to put an eighteen year old kid whose future who value dearly and whose confidence is bound to waver from time-to-time despite prodigious talent. Don’t you protect him from that sort of failure? And yes, I’ve thought about “What if he doesn’t fail?” And it doesn’t make me feel any better.
To further illustrate the point: Brazil and Holland are playing in the 2010 World Cup quarterfinals. Holland labored against a steady Selecao defense and a suave Robinho put Brazil ahead after 45 minutes. But then Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder woke up the slumbering Dutch attack and put the Clockwork Orange ahead 2-1, and with only seventeen minutes to play, Brazil found themselves behind and worse, a man short after Felipe Melo decided a red card was the right way to respond to an own goal. Dunga searched his bench for the classic Brazilian flair player– the guy on the team most capable of changing the match with a flick of the foot or a spectacular pass. That player– Ronaldinho– aging but still influential at Milan– was on a Brazilian beach, not a South African bench. Brazil went home. Dunga was fired.
This isn’t to compare Donovan and Ronaldinho, like for like. Drastically different players technically. But not so much a difference on the “outcomes” front. There will come a point, like in the hypothetical regarding Germany above, where Klinsmann may need that difference maker. To paraphrase A Few Good Men’s Colonel Jessup put it: “Deep down in places you don’t talk about parties, you want Landon Donovan on that wall.” Unfortunately, he’ll be in Los Angeles.
Nonetheless, the US will forge on and into the first of the Send-Off Series matches, Tuesday night against Azerbaijan in San Francisco, without Donovan. A great number of the other selections (and omissions) are referenced above.
With the exception of Brooks, and probably Brad Davis, it’s difficult to find any of the remaining choices offending to the senses. The selection of Kyle Beckerman, whose support among US Soccer fans has resembled a “Harlem Shake” video (empty room, a couple fans dancing– then BOOM!! EVERYBODY LOVES ME!!) was inevitable but is still a great moment. Prepare to see him play too. He’s valued by Klinsmann and he frees Michael Bradley up the field, which at base is one of the keys to this team’s chances. Also prepare to hear the charming footnote about how he signed notes to his Mom as a kid “Love, Kyle Beckerman, #15 US Men’s National Team”, ad nauseam for the next month. And that’s okay. He’s earned it.
If you DaMarcus Beasley goes to four World Cups in the office pool in 2002, you win. Whether he plays or Klinsmann bumps Fabian Johnson back to left back was an afterthought before the roster announcement. It’s now one of the key stories of the Send-Off Series.
Finally, there’s the inclusion of Chris Wondolowski, the company man of a MLS striker who has scored goal after goal for the San Jose Earthquakes, but who, until the past year, has faced constant questions, including from this writer, about whether he can produce at the international level. Wondolowski has broken through (ironically, with brilliant service from Landon Donovan) over the past twelve months, scoring seven goals and in so doing, earning Jurgen Klinsmann’s trust. A blue-flame hot Terrence Boyd was omitted in favor of Wondolowski, whose off-ball movement is brilliant and who can find space where none seems to exist. He gives the US a poacher and has a chance– though he won’t think of it this way and shouldn’t– to validate on a global stage what it means to be a “star” MLS forward. That’s a great story. And it’s all the better Klinsmann named the team early, because it gives Wondolowski a chance to shake off the nerves and pressure of that designation in the Send-Off Series.
Meanwhile, Aron Johannsson is in and that’s no surprise– but to bring the Donovan thread full circle– the Icelandic American has the grandest stage in world sport to become a household name in the States. An electric player who can threaten from various positions on the field, who can influence the game on the ball and even more so with his sweeping runs off it– Johannsson has the chance to catapult himself into the discussion about “What’s Next?” at the World Cup. And that’s something Landon Donovan, watching in Los Angeles, will know all about. After all, that’s what he did against Portugal in 2002.
This is your team.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.