Friday, May 17, 2013

Gone for Good

That Landon Donovan was not named by coach Jurgen Klinsmann to the latest U.S. Men's World Cup qualifying squad for five upcoming matches -- two friendlies and three hex matches -- is not particularly surprising. Donovan, after taking a three months sabbatical from soccer, is trying to round back into shape in the L.A. Galaxy line-up, with varying degrees of success.

After making the decision, Klinsmann said the right things about Donovan -- noting that he understood and respected his decision to take time away from the game -- but also made it clear that this team is his, not Donovan's, and that it is developing its own identity, one that does not include Donovan as its centerpiece, if at all. Donovan also made the appropriate "team player" comments after his exclusion -- understanding and respecting Klinsmann's decision, saying that he will continue to work hard to get in game shape and win his way back into the squad.

While many have speculated that Donovan will return to the team for this summer's Gold Cup (and Klinsmann has noted that is a possibility) that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a place for Donovan in the matches that matter leading up to and hopefully including the World Cup in Brazil, since the coach has also said that he will likely call in an entire "second team" to play in the tournament. And while Klinsmann has not ruled Donovan out of future World Cup qualifiers, his comment regarding Donovan's chances of returning to the squad: "maybe later on we'll definitely expect him back in the team" hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement.

One of the obstacles that both Donovan and Klinsmann face to Donovan's return is where will he play? Clint Dempsey has essentially replaced Donovan in the number 10 shirt of the withdrawn forward or attacking midfielder (albeit with a somewhat different style -- Dempsey is more likely to try to advance the ball from midfield himself, taking on defenders, while Donovan relied on speed, passing, and diagonal runs).

Donovan after scoring the most exciting, if not most important,
goal in U.S. soccer history against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup.
Photo from The Second Ball blog.

The team is desperate for out-and-out wingers and Donovan has played on both the left and right in the past. But he was never a true winger, preferring to return to the center of midfield and rarely took the ball to the corner to send in a cross. And one wonders if age is robbing him of the speed that was a hallmark of his game, as well as an essential tool for a winger who can stretch an opposing defense.

Qualifying matches have revealed a weakness in the Americans' dead-ball skills, something for which Donovan is known. But he's already missed two penalty kicks in the MLS season, so even that  potential contribution is in doubt.

Regardless of whether Donovan regains a spot in the squad, it is clear that it will no longer be "his" team. That in itself indicates the passing of an era. Clearly one of Klinsmann's goals is to make the national team his, or (to give him the benefit of the doubt) the U.S. Soccer Federation's . It may be the most significant contribution he will make to moving the sport forward here.

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