2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, June 2017, U.S. soccer, USMNT

The Gold Cup Proving Ground Fallacy?

Jon Levy 

Bruce Arena revealed his Gold Cup roster on Sunday, and as expected, the US Soccer faithful greeted it with all the opinions. Yes, it’s going to be exciting to see Kellyn Acosta run the show, feeding Paul Arriola’s relentless attack on the wing for an entire tournament. But what about the surprise exclusions of Darlington Nagbe and Wil Trapp? And even if you love those guys, would their absence be made a little less bearable if Joey “Beers” Corona has a good run and mounts a national team comeback this summer? All of these opinions and more circumnavigated the USMNT social networking world on Sunday. But who got the most play? The shiny new toys of course.

KAA Gent midfielder Kenny Saief has UEFA Champions League starts under his belt, and he’s adding some red to his Israeli blue and white, making the switch to play for the US. Similarly, veteran MLS striker Dom Dwyer is donning a little blue, along with the red and white he never got to wear for England. Most feel the 26 year old could bring a different dimension to the American attack, and all the better if the cultured feet of Saief are providing service. So the premise for guys like Kenny and Dom (and more than half the dudes on this roster) is simple: Play well in the Gold Cup and you’ll earn more opportunities and responsibility, the culmination of which could be a spot on the World Cup squad (if we qualify). This premise is always in play for the Gold Cup contested the summer before a World Cup, and it’s the lens for most roster discussions you’ve seen and taken part in over the course of last couple days.

But what if that premise was a lie? What if the US fielded a team very much like the one selected this weekend, but the top performer on the team was deemed surplus to requirements for the next summer’s much bigger tournament? I mean, what if the guy was head-and-shoulders above anyone else you might even mention in the race for the Golden Ball (tournament’s best player), but was left at home while a few of his much more pedestrian Gold Cup teammates were taken to the next summer’s World Cup? What the hell would that do to the useful, merit-based premise set forth above?

At this point you’ve probably figured out that this post isn’t about the 2017 Gold Cup team, it’s about Landon Donovan. Navigate away from the article now if you must, but I promise I’m not going to spend the rest of the post reciting Donovan’s resume, post-sabbatical or otherwise. If you’re reading this you probably don’t need convincing anyway. Instead I’ve gotta get a little autobiographical, if only to explain why I’m writing about Jurgen Klinsmann’s omission of Landon Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster here in 2017.

I’m not a big “Donovan guy.” We must start there, lest I be taken for a zealot hoping to convert “Dempsey guys” across the nation. And I don’t play coy with my affinities either. You’re welcome to know I’ve got the DaMarcus Beasley centennial jersey hanging in my closet. But what’s driving me to write about Donovan in 2017, aside from the sense of hope and the aforementioned premise attached to the looming Gold Cup, are conversations I’ve had in bars and living rooms during US Soccer matches over the course of the last three years. Something about the argument that Jurgen was right to keep Lando off that plane to Brazil sits so uneasily with me I’m actually surprised by it. I’ve gotten louder than my beer intake would justify at AO watch-parties, and at times I’ve lain awake at night, turning it over and over in my head, trying to figure out what I’m missing. But as the years have passed I’m now convinced I understand all sides of this discussion. In a couple more years hopefully I’ll be similarly equipped to explain the level of vitriol reserved for “good guy” Roman Reigns by WWE fans. But that’s an ongoing project, and this lingering Landon Donovan dilemma deserves some closures. So, without any further Freddy Adu, I will now present the arguments for leaving Landon Donovan off the 2014 World Cup squad, and my common-sense retorts.

He’s a has-been, I mean it’s not 2010 anymore, and the guy is old.

I started with the easiest one, because this person doesn’t actually watch soccer. How they infiltrated my space, I do not know. Maybe it has to do with that Free Beer Movement mentality? Like, c’mon, we’re USMNT fans, we welcome all to the beautiful game, yadda, yadda, yadda. But the fact that I got into this topic with this person who holds this “opinion,” is on me. My bad. Anyway, here’s how it goes. I mean, he was 32, and he’d just scored against Mexico in a big qualifier. Hell, he was the MVP of the Gold Cup the summer before. Yeah, but who was he really even playing against in the Gold Cup. That’s when I know for sure this jackleg didn’t watch one Gold Cup match, and I feel a little better agreeing to disagree.

The guy went to go find himself at the wrong time; I mean would you take a sabbatical from work right as a new boss was coming in?

Fair point if Lando hadn’t been given the opportunity to earn his way back into the program. But he was given that opportunity, and delivered a masterpiece in 2013. His Gold Cup Golden Ball wasn’t a respect thing. It wasn’t handing the Super Bowl MVP to Peyton Manning when it should have gone to one of the Colt running backs. Stick to soccer TYAC. Fine. It wasn’t naming Lionel Messi the player of the tournament for the very World Cup we’re discussing when it could have just as easily gone to his teammate Javier Mascherano, or, y’know, one of the German guys who actually won the tournament. Donovan in the 2013 Gold Cup was Lodeiro or Giovinco in their first seasons in MLS, respectively. He was Payet at West Ham in 15/16. He was a class above, but please let’s talk more about the time he took off between major tournaments.

You just don’t understand what Klinsmann’s trying to do.

I’m a US Men’s National Team soccer blogger who writes full match previews about friendlies. I think I understand what Jurgen’s trying to do with the team.

Well, look at us now, that Landon snub looks pretty good now, huh?

This one only plays when things are going well, so for the US post-World Cup it really only applied during that run to the Copa semifinal last summer. And I feel dumb even replying to this argument. The team putting a good run of games together is not the result of a roster move from a couple summers ago. It’s not like Julian Green and Mix Diskerud put all that World Cup experience in their back pockets and are now the stars of the national team. And even if Green had miraculously become Christian Pulisic due to his time with the team in Brazil, we still lost bench (at least initially) productivity in that tournament on the swap, even with Julian’s late strike against Belgium taken into account.

Landon is a relic of an antiquated US Soccer system that Klinsmann is rightfully doing away with, so he did away with Landon too. Good riddance.

There’s a lot to unpack in this argument, and it usually comes from real soccer people who generally have real respectable soccer opinions. First off, this argument uses your opinion on Landon Donovan as a referendum on US Soccer culture/development/style/training pre-Klinsmann. But soccer is not binary, not even when it comes to wins and losses (we got ties, so, trinary?). But injecting nuance into a debate isn’t always easy, especially when someone feels strongly enough to add a one-off like “good riddance” to their point. My hypothetical (but all too real) debater almost certainly uses the names Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena as profanity, and that’s okay. The idea that Guatemala is the only team we can out-possess with the ball on the floor is old and sad and not acceptable. Yes, that’s how some see the old Arena/Bradley regime, and as with anything, there’s some truth to it. So we hire a German manager that wants to find and develop technical players so we don’t have to play bunker D and hope to conquer CONCACAF and the world on set pieces and counterattacks. I’m not even interested in debating how successful Klinsmann was in this mission. It’s a noble pursuit, and in this opinion I’ve got some common ground with this particular “Never Landon” adversary. But the nuance is important. I don’t care if Donovan was the mascot of the Bruce and Bobbo years, a good manager does not exclude a valuable player to make a point about his vision for the future. Not going into a World Cup. In fact, choosing to make a point, be it stylistic or to signal intent, at the expense of your win probability is the least American thing possible, this time in a really bad way. That’s what French managers do in years they don’t make it out of the group stage (lookin’ at Domenech in 2010). That’s what kept Cruyff’s brilliant Netherlands teams from winning any World Cups. And that’s what happened in 2014 when Jurgen Klinsmann, a manager who was hoping to cultivate a new generation of technical American players, cut the most technically brilliant attacking player left by his predecessors from his World Cup squad.

I think I’ve cased the arguments here. Please bother me on Twitter or something if you’ve got one I didn’t come close to addressing. I’ve got enough catharsis in me for a sequel if the market demands it. I don’t think it will. In the meantime, thanks for reading, and may Landon Donovan eternally be the great exception to the Gold Cup meritocracy playing time premise. Go score some goals, Dom Dwyer.

Jon Levy is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @TYAC_Jon.