On Thursday, United States men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his final 23-man roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Shockingly, the one name that wasn't on the list was the team's all-time leader in goals and assists, Landon Donovan.
The decision by Klinsmann brought about an immediate reaction and, once again, raised questions about his managerial acumen.
When Klinsmann was the manager of Germany, he routinely faced criticism from the German press. However, his third-place finish at the 2006 World Cup—with what was considered to be a weak German team—seemed to vindicate many of Klinsmann's decisions.
But upon closer inspection, Germany's third-place finish in 2006 is not as impressive as it appears. In group play, Germany defeated Costa Rica 4-2, Poland 1-0 and Ecuador 3-0. None of those three squads were world-beaters and Germany had, in fact, poached two of Poland's best players in Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski.
In the knockout rounds, Germany defeated Sweden 2-0 and beat Argentina in penalties. They also happened to host the entire tournament and had the advantage of home field. In the years to come, many pundits would also attribute Germany's rise to Klinsmann's assistant, Joachim Loew.
After coaching the German national team, Klinsmann took over at Bayern Munich but didn't complete a single season. He was fired in the spring of his inaugural campaign after a number of what were deemed "embarrassing" defeats.
Two years later, Philipp Lahm, who had played for Klinsmann both at Bayern Munich and for the German national team, launched a scathing indictment of Klinsmann's abilities as a manager.
Lahm wrote, via Raphael Honigstein of Sports Illustrated, "We practiced little more than fitness. Tactical things were neglected. The players had to get together before [the games] to discuss how we wanted to play. After six or eight weeks, all players knew it wouldn't work with Klinsmann. The rest of the season was damage limitation."
To be fair, Lahm's quotes were used as part of a book publication campaign, but his comments proved to be eerily familiar to many of the quotes given by U.S. players in Brian Straus' "Friendly Fire" article, which was published in March 2013.
In Straus' article, via Sporting News, numerous U.S. players complained that Klinsmann was too experimental and failed to give players instructions on how they should approach each game, instead relying on vague phrases like "Go express yourself."
Prior to the article coming out, the U.S. had already experienced a number of issues under Klinsmann, including needing a stoppage-time goal by Eddie Johnson to beat Antigua and Barbuda, and a come-from-behind win against Guatemala at home to avoid elimination from qualifying.
After the article came out, however, the U.S. went on to beat Costa Rica and earn a draw against Mexico. Then, after a hiccup against Belgium, the team went on a 12-game winning streak which included a victory over Germany, three World Cup qualifying wins, a Gold Cup championship and an away win over Bosnia.
In many fans' minds, this finally put to rest the questions about Klinsmann's ability as a manager.
However, taking a closer look, the 12-game winning streak was not nearly as impressive as it seemed. First, the win over Germany was against primarily its "C" players. The World Cup qualifying wins included a stoppage-time win over Jamaica and home wins against Panama and Honduras—not exactly world powerhouses. The Gold Cup was played primarily against CONCACAF "B" sides, and the win against Bosnia came only in the second half when many of their top players were subbed off.
Since last summer's winning streak, the team's performances have been uneven, at best. The team was beaten soundly against Costa Rica in September and failed to score a goal in away games against Scotland and Austria in November. They beat a depleted Korean team in February, before losing embarrassingly against Ukraine in March and throwing away a 2-0 lead against Mexico in April.
Then came Klinsmann's decision to exclude Donovan.
As head coach of the USMNT, Klinsmann has always made contradictory statements about player selections. He has, at times, stressed club form but then called in players who are struggling at the club level. On his final World Cup roster, Klinsmann has included striker Jozy Altidore, who scored two goals in 39 appearances for Sunderland this past season.
In Friday's press conference defending his roster selections, Klinsmann spoke of the value of experience. Yet, on the roster he has included Julian Green, Aron Johannsson and John Anthony Brooks—all of whom have less than 10 international caps. Green, in particular, doesn't match the definition of experience, as the entirety of his first-team playing time on the professional level is a grand total of three minutes.
When the roster was first released, Klinsmann said about Donovan, "I just see some players slightly ahead of him." Presumably, this means players like Green, Brad Davis, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya and Chris Wondolowski. A statement like that makes it difficult to take any of Klinsmann's words at face value.
In the end, the true measure of Klinsmann's decision to omit Donovan from the roster still remains to be seen. But if the U.S. is down a goal late in the game to Ghana, Portugal or Germany in this summer's World Cup, it's hard to imagine anyone else being a better option to find the U.S. a goal than its all-time goals and assists leader.
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