Landon Donovan is widely recognized as the greatest soccer player in American history, and while the 32-year-old is decidedly past his prime at this stage of his illustrious international career, the ruse being put on by national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, and the game Donovan is being forced to play because of it, is getting a bit ridiculous.
Donovan will be playing in Brazil. Stop suggesting otherwise.
This dance began in early 2013 when a burned-out Donovan decided to take some time off in an effort to recharge his depleted batteries. At the time, Donovan debated retiring from MLS and questioned whether or not he still had the passion to play domestic or international soccer at the high level he was accustomed to playing.
The timing of Donovan's announcement was curious to say the least, as the United States men's soccer team was in the middle stages of qualifying for the World Cup, a campaign for which Donovan would be counted on heavily. Or so we thought.
Klinsmann seemed to take Donovan's respite personally, unequivocally stating that all the players in the USMNT player pool would have to earn a way onto the World Cup roster—specifically calling out Donovan in the process.
When both his body and mind were appropriately recharged after four months away from the game, Donovan said and did all the right things to get back into the U.S. Soccer fold, catering to Klinsmann's ultimate decision with professionalism when he was left off the World Cup qualifying roster last June, asked instead to participate in July's Gold Cup tournament, a certain demotion for one of America's biggest stars.
"I've been gone for a long time," Donovan told Reuters in May (via Kelly Whiteside of USA Today). "I basically excused myself from the first three (qualifiers) so I understand the way the world works."
At the Gold Cup, Donovan showed he still has what the U.S. team needs. He was absolutely dominant. Donovan led the tournament with five goals and seven assists, including the game-winner over Panama in the title game. He was the best player on the best team in the tournament, making it certain he would be pulled out of Klinsmann's doghouse and unleashed on the remaining World Cup qualifiers.
When he was invited back to into the mix for qualifiers, he still had to earn time on the field, and all he did—again—was prove how much he belongs.
So why are we still talking about him like he's not a lock for Brazil?
Donovan made the 30-man provisional roster for the World Cup and earlier this week told reporters that he feels confident in his ability to make the final 23-man team. Still, he's unsure that he's a lock, telling the media at camp, via MLSSoccer.com, "I’m very confident in my abilities and I think I’m deserving to be a part of the squad, but I have to prove that and I have to earn it."
Hasn't Donovan done enough to prove he deserves to be one of the 23 players going to Brazil? Look, I'm on record saying that I don't know if Donovan deserves a spot in the starting XI at this point in his career, but it seems ridiculous that anyone is looking at the list of 30 players Klinsmann brought into camp this month and is picking Donovan as one of the seven players who should stay home.
Even if his form isn't as sharp as it was last summer—he has struggled with tendonitis in his knee at the start of the MLS season—Donovan certainly deserves a seat on the plane to Brazil over less-seasoned (and skilled) players in camp.
His experience alone should make the selection a no-brainer, and what Donovan has done at past World Cups, and in many big-game situations in his career, makes any specter of his exclusion an absolute farce.
And yet, it's a story. Why? Because Klinsmann made it one. From Soccer by Ives:
Landon Donovan—the media thinks he's untouchable. The media thinks he has to be in the starting lineup or he has to be in Brazil based on what he did, and he did marvelous for soccer in the United States over the last 12, 14 years.
That's not how it works. I have to choose the best 23 players based on what I see today.
Again, as camp opened, Klinsmann echoed that sentiment, telling reporters (via Brian Strauss of SI.com), "We're not building the group based on the past, we're building the group based on what we experience and go through together and what we believe, and as of today, is the right decision."
Klinsmann was rightly effusive in his praise for what Donovan has done in the past, but this game he's playing with Donovan's future is a distraction the rest of the team doesn't need right now.
Why are Tim Howard and Michael Bradley—the two most important pieces of the U.S. World Cup hopes—answering questions about Donovan making the team? Again from Strauss at SI.com:
Last year, Michael Bradley said plainly, 'If we're going to play more than three games in Brazil, we need Landon.' This week at Stanford, goalkeeper Tim Howard said, 'For me, it's a very easy equation. If Landon is on the field, he's our top one or two players ... he strikes fear in our opponents.'
That's "top one or two," not "top 22," and even if Howard did say Donovan was one of the top 22 players, he would still make the trip with one seat to spare.
Donovan should not have to worry about flying standby to Brazil. He is still a first-class player, and with just weeks to go before the World Cup begins, Klinsmann should be looking at Donovan as such.
None of this is to suggest Donovan should get preferential treatment, and Klinsmann shouldn't hold a press conference today to announce that Donovan has been the first player named to his 23-man squad just because some of us in the media think that. At some point, though, everyone needs to stop with the ruse that Donovan is still fighting for a spot on the trip.
Donovan shouldn't be left in the hangar, and Klinsmann knows that.
Donovan can still play, and as Howard said, he can still strike fear in an opponent the way just a select few on the American side can. His presence in Brazil is vital, and his absence would be criminal.
If this is just some odd motivational tactic, or a way to continue to single out Donovan to send a message to the rest of the camp that nobody is guaranteed a spot, then Klinsmann has made his point already.
If there is more to it, and if Klinsmann still harbors ill will toward Donovan after his self-inflicted hiatus last year, then the two have about 10 days to work this all out.
It's easy to discount this as media sentimentality, but if Donovan doesn't make the trip to Brazil, Klinsmann shouldn't, either. At this point in our nation's soccer history—in the past, present and very near future—which of the two matters more?
But we know that's not going to happen, no matter what anyone is saying this week. So let's stop pretending this is an actual story, okay? People may be starting to believe it.