Heading into last month’s World Cup qualifiers, Jurgen Klinsmann was a man fighting for his job.
Under his guidance, the United States men’s national team had stumbled through the third round of CONCACAF qualifying match and in their opening match of The Hex, were beaten 2-1 by Honduras—a result more one-sided than the score suggests.
And ahead of their second appointment in the six-team mini-tournament, rumours of a mutiny within the national team setup threatened to destabilize the whole venture.
But then, in a Denver blizzard, the United States reversed their fortunes—and their manager’s—by handing Costa Rica a 1-0 defeat—a triumph that was followed four days later by a memorable draw against Mexico at the Azteca.
In both matches some of Klinsmann’s key decisions (such as the dropping of Carlos Bocanegra, the deployment of DaMarcus Beasley at left-back and the use of Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez in a versatile trio behind Jozy Altidore) were vindicated, so you could understand why he would want to change very little in the run-up to a June 7 engagement with Jamaica.
And the recall of former captain Landon Donovan to the setup would represent a very major change.
Donovan, 31, returned from his self-imposed exile from football on March 25—the day before the United States drew Mexico—and five days later played, his first competitive match of the season when he came on as a second-half substitute for Los Angeles Galaxy against Toronto FC.
Last Wednesday he made another cameo appearance against Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League, and he’ll likely feature regularly for Bruce Arena’s side from here on in.
Not that merely turning up for his club when it finally behooved him to do so should, in any way, compel Klinsmann to welcome him back to the United States side.
In a January interview with The Wall Street Journal, Klinsmann revealed some frustration with Donovan, saying, “Landon wanted his time off. He made certain decisions throughout the last couple of years that are his decisions. I watch that. I evaluated that. ... I will make the call at the end of the day if he fits into my plans or not.”
And at this point he’s probably wondering, “Why should I?”
The Gomez-Dempsey-Zusi triumvirate worked wonders against both Costa Rica and Mexico—functioning as an attacking trident behind a lone striker against the Ticos and serving as cover for the full-backs and central midfield against El Tri.
Zusi, in particular, stood out in the two matches, and a Donovan return would likely mean the Sporting Kansas City star losing his place—something that would make no sense whatsoever. Man for man, Zusi is a better option than Donovan, and that should come as no surprise. He was the better player all of last season, as well.
Even including Donovan as a squad player would be an unnecessary risk at this point.
The three-time MLS Cup winner brings a certain force of personality into any team he represents, and while that’s not always a bad thing at present, it’s simply not useful. In Donovan’s absence, the United States men’s national team became Clint Dempsey’s team, and even as recently as their last two matches, it was apparent that a new identity is forming within the squad—one that Klinsmann would be foolish to disrupt unless he absolutely had to.
“I’m kind of just observing, to see where he’s at and how he gets back into his rhythm,” Klinsmann told reporters at a recent press conference in New York City. “We will watch his games, obviously, and judge his performance” (MLSSoccer.com).
A cautious approach, and the right one.
Klinsmann has already risked his neck as United States manager, and now that he has managed to swing momentum in his favour, he’s not about to risk it once again.
Not yet, anyway.