Friday, May 23, 2014

Donovan Out; Wondo In

I could say I saw this coming.

Then again, I could say I didn't.

I admit that after his performance during last year's Gold Cup I thought that Landon Donovan had secured a place on the 2014 U.S. World Cup team. But a lot has happened since then. 

Donovan's poor form in MLS so far this season (he has yet to score and while he has two assists, has not significantly influenced the L.A. Galaxy's performance this year) for one. And Donovan's admission that his age (or his current physical or mental condition) no longer allows him to train as hard for as many days in a row as he used to be able to for another.

Ultimately Donovan's form, age, and competition from younger or more in-form players led Jurgen Klinsmann to leave Donovan off of the 23-man roster that will travel to Brazil. The reaction from fans and pundits of the team has been vocal and varied.

Some believe that the decision will be disastrous for the team. Some believe that it's indicative of Klinsmann insuring that everyone understands that he, and he alone, is in charge. Others believe that it was warranted or even inevitable. 

I just don't see this as a display of power by Klinsmann. If anything, I believe that he clearly established last year that this is his team, not Donovan's or anyone else's, when he excluded Donovan from the squad for a series of friendlies and qualifiers. 

As for all the fans and supposed experts who criticize the move as stupid or wrong or biased I can only say: "Shut. Up."

I'm particularly sensitive to individuals who are wont to second-guess strategic coaching decisions, especially those who arrive at their conclusions based on what they've read or heard or seen on television. Most have no idea what has gone on at practice, in the locker room, in Klinsmann's conversations with his staff, or in his head.

Unless we start with the premise that Klinsmann is intentionally making decisions that are bad for the team and its chances for success in Brazil (which is nothing short of crazy), now hardly seems to be the time to criticize them. Does the specter of Donovan bearing down on them strike more fear into Portugal's or Germany's or Ghana's defenders than, say, Brad Davis or Julian Green? While the armchair managers certainly seem to think so, on what possible basis can they reach that conclusion other than pure speculation?

If the U.S. trails late in a match and Donovan isn't there to be brought off the bench, no doubt some will point to that moment (if the Yanks don't rally) as proof of Klinsmann's mistake. But in all likelihood the player that Klinsmann has in mind for that situation is Chris Wondolowski, whose inclusion in the roster is a cause for celebration. 

Wondolowski played college soccer for NCAA Division II Chico State, then worked his way through the reserve teams of the San Jose Earthquakes, the Houston Dynamo, and then San Jose again before bursting on the scene with the senior San Jose squad in 2010. Wondo made his first national team appearance at the advanced age of 29, scored his first international goal in last year's Gold Cup at 30, and followed that up four days later by notching a hat-trick against Belize while wearing a shirt with the misspelled "Wondowlowski" on the back.

Making a name for himself, even if the wrong one.
(photo from

Wondo has earned a reputation for hard work and for being a consummate poaching forward. He doesn't always look pretty doing it, but the guy just scores goals when he's supposed to, and sometimes when he isn't. In other words, just the player you want to come off the bench late in a match when a goal is needed.

Surely, Klinsmann turned just such a scenario over in his head when deciding who to include on the roster. As well as who to use for late match set pieces (Brad Davis) or who may provide some late match toughness in the midfield (Kyle Beckerman), or who could serve as a replacement for a potentially suspended Jermaine Jones (Beckerman again).

As with the end of my last post, I note again that whether Klinsmann's 23-man roster is the "right" one will be proven, at least in part, by how those players perform in Brazil. Or, perhaps, even in qualifying for (and hopefully at) the 2018 World Cup.

But, for now, let's let Klinsmann be the coach and we be the fans, nothing more and nothing less. And let's celebrate Donovan's career as one of the best player to ever put on the shirt of his nation's team. And let's celebrate the fact that a guy whose name that team couldn't even spell right a year ago will don that same shirt (for the first, and probably last, time) at this year's World Cup.

Post Script: Came across this blog post while researching my next one. Eeriely similar to mine. I swear I hadn't seen it when I wrote mine.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Two Not So Fitting Farewells - Part Two

Meanwhile, over on the XY side of things, last week Jurgen Klinsmann announced his preliminary squad of 30 players that will go to camp in California to train for the World Cup this summer in Brazil.

There were no real surprises on the list, including the omission of Eddie Johnson from the team. And while not surprising, and seemingly handled well by Klinsmann, Johnson's omission is unfortunate given his service to his country's team.

While Klinsmann kept his word and chose players for the squad who were, for the most part, performing well for their clubs (Landon Donovan being one notable exception), it's not easy to forget Johnson's play during the CONCACAF qualifying rounds that was one of the biggest reasons that the U.S. is going to Brazil in the first place.

The men struggled early in the third round of qualifying and, with a record of 2-1-1, were playing away to "minnows" Antigua and Barbuda. In danger of coming away with no better than a draw, Johnson  scored both goals in a 2-1 win, including the game winner in the 90th minute.

Then Johnson made appearances in eight of the Hex (fourth round) qualifying matches, scoring two goals including the game winner in the latest Dos a Cero victory over Mexico in Columbus.

But that was while Johnson was flying high and scoring goals for the Seattle Sounders last MLS season. After finding success in MLS with Dallas and Kansas City, his career had taken a wrong turn in stints in the English Premier League and the English Championship, only to be revived in 2012 and 2013 with Seattle.

After last season, Johnson, feeling he was underpaid, essentially forced a trade from Seattle to D.C. United (Seattle was unable to meet Johnson's wage demands because of the MLS salary cap). While the salary increase was merited, Johnson didn't do his potential spot on the national team any favors by moving to the team with the worst scoring record in MLS history in 2013, or by explaining his scoring futility since joining D.C. by saying that in Seattle he was fed by "better guys that had more quality on the ball."

Johnson's complaint and the resulting fallout were consistent with the general perception of Johnson, which that he is moody and not a team player. In explaining why he had felt compelled to explain to his teammates why he threw them under the bus, Johnson said: "I don't want them to think I am better than them. That's always been the perception of my career: I'm a prima donna, I'm a bad teammate, I'm bad in the locker room. That's not the case." 

Klinsmann specifically said that the incident "had nothing to do with the decision" to not name Johnson to the 30-man squad, instead implying that Johnson had simply fallen behind other players vying for forward spots on the team. And it is arguable that Johnson's exclusion is less painful now than it will be for the seven players who will train in Palo Alto and participate in the friendly matches between now and June 2 only to not make the 23-man team that will travel to Brazil.

Klinsmann has more difficult decisions ahead in determining the
final roster of 23 that will play in Brazil. (photo from

It is, however, a bitter pill for Johnson to swallow, particularly given his role in getting the team to Brazil in the first place. And another example of how U.S. soccer has become both more internally competitive and more cold-hearted. Perhaps that's what we need to be able to compete with the best in the world. It will be up to Klinsmann and those 23 players with him in Brazil to prove that we can on the pitch as well as we recently have off of it.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Two Not So Fitting Farewells - Part One

You could take two recent decisions involving the U.S. Men's and Women's national teams as good signs. As indications that we are big time now, that we make heartless decisions based on what we think is best for our programs, nothing more and nothing less.

Or you could see it as the passing of an era, from a time when our national soccer teams, perhaps to a fault, recognized past service or gave longer leash to a coach because it was the right thing, even if it wasn't necessarily in the best interests of the team (Briana Scurry starting in the 2007 World Cup semifinals instead of Hope Solo comes to mind, but perhaps then-coach Greg Ryan would disagree, since the fallout from that determination cost him his job).

The first decision involved the "shocking" dismissal last month of Women's head coach Tom Sermanni. Unlike Pia Sundhage's last game, there was no celebration after Sermanni's last match as coach, in which the U.S. beat China 3-0. In fact, other than Sunil Gulati and perhaps handful of others, no one knew that it was Sermanni's last match.

That victory came on the heels of a disappointing performance by the squad in the Algrave Cup, an annual women's tournament held in Portugal. The U.S. drew with eventual runners-up Japan in their first group match before losing to Sweden 1-0 and to Denmark by a shocking 5-3 score. Sweden is now coached by Sundhage, adding insult to the injury of a seventh place finish.

Sermanni coaching during the match vs. Japan at the Algrave
Cup. The team's performance at the tournament was at least a
part of his undoing. (photo from

While the team's performance in Portugal was admittedly underwhelming, it did not seem to be sufficient justification for a change. The termination came as a shock to Sermanni who is universally beloved by his players and seemingly deserved better, or, at the least, some notice that a change was being considered.

In the aftermath of the firing, pundits offered varying theories on the reasons for and the timing of Sermanni's departure. With CONCACAF Wold Cup qualifying set to take place in October for the 2015 Women's World Cup to be held in Canada, time is short for another coach to impose his or her vision on the team.

Gulati denied that a player revolt provoked Sermanni's dismissal, but it's hard to believe that the veterans of the squad were happy with Sermanni's habit of thrusting players new to the national team into starting spots (and, in particular, leaving Abby Wambach on the bench for the entire match against Japan and for all but five minutes against Denmark). Gulati did admit in his press conference that he gained information from "people in and around the team" that played a role in the decision, along with an assessment of "where the team's going and heading," and the performance in Portugal.

It's inconceivable that the decision was made with anything other than the best of intentions - clearly, Gulati and others in the U.S. Soccer brain trust thought the team was headed in the wrong direction (or, more likely, in no particular direction). With a qualification tournament upcoming that was nearly the team's undoing four years ago (remember the loss to Mexico? the play-off matches against Italy?) surely part of what played into Sermanni's firing was that if a change had to be made, it had to be made soon.

So, Sermanni wasn't the answer. Fair enough. But who is? The anticipation was that a new coach would be named by early May, but it's nearly the middle of the month and still no new coach. The list of candidates, frankly, isn't that inspiring (although Sundhage's former assistant, Tony Gustavsson, is an intriguing option). And time is growing short.

One thing is certain: if we are in a new, cold world of soccer with our women's national team, the choice this time had better be the right one. Or heads other than just the next coach's ought to roll.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Soccer the Way It's Meant to Be

That was my tweet as I sat in the stands at Sporting Park in suburban Kansas City, soaking in the atmosphere before Sporting Kansas City's match against the Columbus Crew last Sunday. And I think I got it just right.

The crowd was fantastic throughout, singing, chanting, banging on drums and rooting their club on. And, I have to admit, that while I've supported the Crew since their inception, I certainly got caught up in the atmosphere and understood why the fans loved the team and that the feeling was clearly reciprocated by the players. Maybe that's why I wasn't the least disappointed that KC won the match 2-0.

Sporting KC's magnificent facility.

The contrast between the Kansas City crowd and those at Crew games was stark. While, admittedly, the Crew haven't given their fans a whole lot to cheer about in the past few years, the suspicion sneaked over you that there was something more fundamental at work - that the KC fans have embraced the sport and their club, while the Columbus fans have not, and probably never will.

More's the pity because the clubs are siblings of the same father - Lamar Hunt, one of the founding members of the MLS originally owned both franchises. But while, despite its professional football and baseball teams, the Kansas City area has become fervent about professional soccer, Columbus has not.

Rather than dwelling on the contrasts between the two franchises, however, I found more comfort in contrasting my experience at Sporting Kansas City Park with that of the first few MLS matches I ever saw in person. They were Crew games at what was then a decrepit Ohio State Stadium. Even putting aside my person distaste with regard to the facility and its regular tenant, it was a cold tomb in which the 10,000 or so in attendance on a good day were swallowed up by 80,000 empty seats.

From those humble beginnings, MLS has grown to scenes like those I witnessed last Sunday, on a beautiful day, with the sun streaming down on the natural grass pitch in a beautiful stadium dedicated to professional soccer. And similar scenes play out every weekend from one coast to the other, particularly in Seattle and Portland (although both have Field Turf pitches, which I can personally attest is beneficial where grass doesn't grow well, but is still not real grass) and Salt Lake City and Philadelphia and Houston.

Columbus corner kick in front of the "Cauldron".

We have become a soccer nation. And, at least some times, we play soccer the way it's meant to be.