Monday, July 29, 2013

On Second Thought

While I like to think I'm right most of the time, I will admit to my occasional mistake. And I may have been wrong about Landon Donovan.

When Donovan was left off the U.S. Men's National team roster in May, I posted that the Donovan era was over. But his demise, like that of Mark Twain, may have been exaggerated.

Not that I think I was wrong that the team is no longer Donovan's (which was the gist of my post). It is clearly Jurgen Klinsmann's now, having claimed its first trophy under his leadership and, ironically, due at least in part to his dismissal in the last minutes of the semi-final and ban from the sidelines for the final ("he cares! he really cares!!"), along with two sublime substitutions that resulted in a goal from the entering player within his first minute on the field.

But I may have overstated the lack of influence that Donovan could have on the 2014 squad and its chances for success, now that he is all but certain to be in Brazil next year. His performance at the Gold Cup and Klinsmann's reaction to Donovan's effort certainly suggest that he will be in the team and will be looked to for significant contribution.

Where and when that contribution will come is what Klinsmann has to figure out between now and next summer. Donovan played either a withdrawn forward (or a "number ten shirt" as Fox Soccer analyst Brian Dunseth annoyingly and repeatedly feels compelled to say) or as an out-and-out forward at the Gold Cup.

The problem is that while Donovan did indeed wear 10 on his back in the Gold Cup, that spot on the preferred U.S. roster is now owned by Clint Dempsey, and barring either injury or a shocking downturn in form, it is what and where he will be in Brazil. Similarly, Klinsmann prefers playing with one true forward and Jozy Altidore is the clear front runner to start there a year from now. Besides, while Donovan was occasionally creative as a forward, he is not a target player up front.

Donovan has played on the wing for club and country, but Klinsmann seems to prefer outside mids with speed and who will defend better than Donovan. So that leaves Donovan with the role of "super sub" at any of these positions, which seems suitable at this point in his career. While Klinsmann repeatedly says there are no guarantees for positions on the squad or in the starting line-up (and we have no reason to doubt his word at this point), it would be a surprise if Donovan is in the starting 11 against America's first opponent in Brazil. But after the Gold Cup it would not be a surprise, if the U.S. has a successful run, that Donovan will be a part of it.

Other than Donovan, the players who in my view helped their chances of making the squad for the World Cup were Kyle Beckerman, Michael Parkhurst ("rah! rah! Wake Forest rah!"), and Brek Shea. 

Beckerman, the dreadlocked defensive center-mid (his hair has its own Twitter feed), may have been the most consistent and most vital player for the Americans for the entire tournament. He bossed the game defensively and started attacks from the back with smart passing. While Jermaine Jones seems to have forged a good understanding with Michael Bradley in the midfield, he still has not overcome his penchant for at least one rash challenge per match which, given FIFA's yellow card rule, is problematic.

Beckerman, his hair, and defender Tony Beltran acknowledge
U.S. supporters after the win over Cuba in the Gold Cup.
(photo from Deseret News)

Parkhurst was solid defensively and showed good ability to get involved in the attack. While no doubt that offensive role will be more limited against the much higher level of talent that World Cup opponents will provide, he established himself as a useful player at right back, as Steve Cherundolo's understudy if nothing else. And while Shea's play was spotty, there's no denying that he was in the right place at the right time to score the two biggest goals of the tournament for the Yanks.

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