Jurgen Klinsmann is playing a dangerous game with his latest roster of U.S. national team call-ups. If Klinsmann doesn't get the results needed in the next trio of World Cup qualifiers, everything—Klinsmann's entire tenure as manager—will hinge on one decision.
Why is Landon Donovan not in camp?
It's one thing to leave Donovan off the list of players for the next round of World Cup qualifiers because you think he isn't fit. It is entirely another thing to not include one of the greatest players in American soccer history out of stubbornness and spite.
Look at the players Klinsmann chose in the midfield instead of Donovan. The list is less than inspiring: Michael Bradley, Joe Corona, Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea, Danny Williams and Graham Zusi.
Who on that list can do more to help the USMNT qualify for the World Cup more than Donovan? Bradley. That's it. Maybe Jones if he's healthy.
Certainly a few players on the list don't play the same role as Landon, but some of the midfielders named make it obvious what Klinsmann is trying to do.
Sadly, in an effort to make his team less about Donovan, Klinsmann only served to make the conversation surrounding this team more about Donovan.
It was fine to leave Donovan off the roster if Klinsmann didn't think he could help. Seeing the players he picked over Donovan makes the motivations more obvious: Klinsmann is trying to punish Donovan for taking time off this winter, even if it means hurting the USMNT's chances of qualifying for the World Cup in the process.
Not only is Donovan one of the best players in the history of American soccer, he seems to be quickly coming back into form after his lengthy personal hiatus from the game. Donovan admitted to seriously contemplating retirement, but he seems rejuvenated and back to his old self with Los Angeles, tied for the team lead in assists and tied for second in goals after playing in just six of the team's 10 matches this MLS season.
It always feels good to play well and tonight I felt like I was back to my old self. And always a goal is nice but I think just being aggressive and running at people, making a difference that way felt like the old me and it was nice to play that way again.
Unfortunately, Klinsmann seems to disagree, yet is talking out of both sides of his mouth when compiling this current group of talent.
Klinsmann was asked by USSoccer.com about Donovan's progress after being off for four months. His reply is transparent:
I think Landon is catching up. We’re all excited that he has decided to continue to play. That was the first major answer that we needed to get, and now he’s just working himself back into shape and back into a playing rhythm. He will get sharper and more confident with every game he’s going to play now. So we’ll watch that, we’ll monitor that and we’ll decide then when to bring him back into our picture. It’s not going to be for these upcoming games, but maybe later on we’ll definitely expect him back in the team.
Again, if Klinsmann is looking for players at the top of their game, Donovan has shown with his recent performances that he is getting there. Let's not forget that the MLS season is just starting, compared to the long, grinding seasons in Europe. Donovan is fresh after his time away from the game, which should be seen as a benefit to Klinsmann when comparing him to other players who are just finishing up a full European slate.
And what does Klinsmann's comments on Donovan say about the players he did choose who aren't in form? Brek Shea is in better form than Donovan?
Please. Shea was nearly run out of Dallas last season after a poor year by his standards and was given a European lifeline after being bought by Stoke City of the English Premier League.
Shea played twice for Stoke this year, toiling away with the reserves.
Joe Corona received another invitation to camp as well, which would be fine if Klinsmann was picking out the Gold Cup roster this summer. Corona should—read should—have little chance to make it on the field for these World Cup qualifiers, so it makes no sense why he would be on the team ahead of Donovan.
What about Stuart Holden, who has been injured for nearly three years?
While Holden is a great story and is having a miraculous comeback, putting him on the roster ahead of Donovan makes little sense if the goal is to actually field the best team to qualify for the World Cup.
Holden has started only four matches for Bolton this season and appeared in four more for Sheffield Wednesday, both mid-table squads in England's Championship division. Yet when asked at the start of May about Holden being in camp, Klinsmann seemed to be unconcerned with his lack of match time or fitness (via USSoccer.com):
He’s on his way back. That being said, we want to have him back in our picture. We are going to bring him for the May-June camp, and also for the Gold Cup.
So that’s exciting news for us, having him back in the group and seeing him and evaluating where he’s at, and helping him become the old Stuart Holden, and even better because he’s still so young.
Ah, perhaps it's youth, more than fitness, that Klinsmann wants on this current team.
Donovan surely doesn't bring any youth to the side. How, then, does Klinsmann justify bringing Brad Davis in over Donovan? Davis, a standout in MLS for years, is 31 years old (and four months older than Donovan) and until Klinsmann brought him in to camp during this recent run has been widely ignored at the national team level.
Davis came on in the 71st minute of the USMNT's most recent qualifier at Mexico, serving mostly to remind fans that Donovan was still on sabbatical. With Donovan back, Davis seems to be the most expendable player on the roster.
In theory, the move by Klinsmann is understandable. Clearly Klinsmann knows that Donovan is past his prime and, frankly, unreliable at times. The USMNT was facing a rash of injuries for the previous set of World Cup qualifiers and Donovan seemed content with staying out of the conversation then. If he didn't have the drive to play when the team needed him, why should Klinsmann trust him now that—at least from a health standpoint—he may not be the first choice to start?
In reality, he is still one of the best options available, and excluding Donovan from camp smacks of stubbornness and spite.
Could it just be a matter of not having a place for Donovan on the field? Graham Zusi has been solid for the USMNT in his brief tenure with the national team, and at this point Zusi probably deserves to start over Donovan. Still, that shouldn't have kept Landon off the roster entirely.
If Klinsmann perhaps thought that Donovan being invited to camp but not put in the lineup would serve as a distraction, he absolutely miscalculated how much Donovan's complete absence—in favor of players with far less international experience and, let's face it, quality—would be received.
In the end, Klinsmann's decision better work. A failure to qualify with Donovan on the field would be one thing, but failing to qualify with Donovan in form and sitting at home will be impossible for Klinsmann to justify…or survive.