A lot has been written about Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to cut Landon Donovan from the USMNT roster. Many have criticized the decision for a variety of reasons, and many have lauded it as a bold move. Klinsmann justified the move simply saying that Donovan is not good enough anymore. From a recent USA Today Article:
“We felt like other players, without naming guys, are a tiny little bit ahead of him,” Klinsmann said about Landon Donovan. At 32, Donovan isn’t the same player he was a few years ago, Klinsmann said, noting that Donovan’s ability to take on players in the box and finish aren’t what they once were. While Donovan’s passing skills and experience are a plus, the passage of time has eroded other key elements, “which is normal,” Klinsmann said.
I think there are a couple of interesting things to take into consideration when analyzing this rational. First and foremost, there is some fairly recent data from Donovan’s international performances.
Ten months ago, Donovan led the USMNT to a Gold Cup victory. It was an “off year” Gold Cup competition, so many teams were not at full strength, which has caused many to completely discount his performance in this tournament. However, in the six games over nineteen days, Donovan played 542 out of 560 minutes (being subbed off only after the semi-final match with Honduras was wrapped up). In those six matches, Donovan had five goals and seven assists (leading the tournament in both categories). In addition, there was a pre-tournament friendly played four days before the start of the tournament in which Donovan logged 73 minutes and two additional goals. That accounts for 14 goals (scored or assisted) over a 23-day period.
To put that in perspective, DaMarcus Beasley is the player going to the world cup with the highest number of career assists. He has a total of 13. Clint Dempsey has 12, and Michael Bradley weighs in with 8. No other midfielder on the roster has more career assists than Donovan logged in the Gold Cup last summer.
There is no other player in the history of US soccer that has had a senior tournament like that. Ever. Other top players have played in off-year tournaments, and no one else has managed to pull that off.
To wrap up his year, Donovan also had a hand in both goals in the September 10th World-Cup-Qualification-clinching victory over Mexico (with a goal and another assist), making him the 2013 leader in both goals scored (tied with Josey Altidore) and assists. This would have been a career year for any other player in the USMNT pool, and it was seen as a down year for Donovan because he had been excluded from most of the qualifying campaign due to his six week sabbatical at the beginning of the season.
The point of all of this is that no other player in the USMNT pool is capable of producing at Donovan’s level. This is not ancient history we are talking about. This is not 2010. This is less than a year ago.
Donovan has had a poor run of form to start this MLS season. There’s no question that he is not playing at that level right now. This brings me to my second point. As the old cliche goes: form is temporary, but class is permanent.
As an example, just look at Donovan’s old teammate, David Beckham, who went through a bad run of form at a similar age and got dropped from both the England squad and his club team. However, he worked himself back into form and went on to have several successful years for both club and country at the highest level.
With all that in mind, does it really make sense to leave behind a player of Donovan’s caliber from the 2014 World Cup? How can it be justified? Taking a chance on an unproven guy like Julian Green or bringing along a strong journeyman MLSer like Brad Davis seems ridiculous in that light. Heck, look at Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson. None of these guys are capable of what Donovan pulled off last summer. A bunch of them were there with him, and the difference in class was unmistakable.
Let me be clear. I have no problem with leaving an out-of-form player off the roster. I have no problem dropping an older player to make room for a young guy who will benefit from the experience. I have no problem with including in-form players that are otherwise unremarkable. Those are the tough choices that a good coach has to make.
However, when the stakes are this high, and discrepancy in talent is this great, how can you possibly justify using all of those reasons to put a half-dozen clearly inferior players on the roster ahead of Donovan? It makes no sense at all.