When asked how his conversation went with Landon Donovan after telling the American soccer legend he was not a member of the 23-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil, U.S. soccer manager Jurgen Klinsmann stressed how professional Donovan was in handling the news.
One has to wonder how Klinsmann feels now.
In the wake of Klinsmann's decision, Donovan posted a message on Facebook thanking the American soccer public for its near-unwavering support. Rather than leave it at that and go back to the Los Angeles Galaxy with his tail between his aging legs, Donovan went on the offensive, telling reporters in L.A. just how wrong he felt the decision was, via MLSSoccer.com:
Based on my performances leading up to camp, based on my preparation for the camp, based on my fitness, based on my workload, based on the way I trained and played in camp, I not only thought I was part of the 23, I thought I was in contention to start. So that's why this has all been pretty disappointing.
Klinsmann held a press conference Friday to discuss the 23 players he chose, and it turned into a session exclusively about the most notable one he omitted. He refused to go into specifics as to why he left Donovan home, saying repeatedly that "at this moment we feel that the other players—without naming any of those guys—are a tiny little bit ahead of him," as reported on MLSSoccer.com.
Klinsmann also said over and over again during his media session that Donovan "did everything right" in camp, making the case that it wasn't a lack of effort, but a set of diminished skills and fitness that was keeping him off the final roster.
That seemed to set Donovan off, and for a guy who truly hasn't had the work rate or production this season in MLS we've grown accustomed to seeing in his career, Sunday night was a clear message that he's still got it.
Donovan recorded an assist in the second minute against the Philadelphia Union on Sunday night on a wicked free kick into the box, setting the tone for one of the most memorable nights in his illustrious MLS career.
Donovan was active all game long, setting up teammates for scoring chances throughout the first half. The second half belonged to him.
Minutes after the break, he scored his first of two goals, both off stellar give-and-go plays with Robbie Keane, finally breaking the record for the most goals in MLS history.
After the match, Donovan said he just wants to get back to loving the game. "I want to get back to enjoying football because this has been a week where I had moments where I fell out of love with it a little bit," he told reporters after the match, via MLS. "I want to make sure I keep enjoying it.”
A statement evening for Landon Donovan.— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) May 26, 2014
Donovan made sure to point out the form he thinks he is in right now. Again, via MLSSoccer.com, he sent another message to Klinsmann, after a night full of them:
I feel like I'm in really good form right now and playing really well, and it was only a matter of time until the goal came. I really feel good about how I played, and this is a continuation of how I've played over the last few months.
It's clear, to Donovan at least, that his exclusion from the U.S. roster had little to do with the last few months (and nothing to do with his time in camp the last few weeks) and everything to do with the strained relationship he has with Klinsmann after a soccer sabbatical he took during World Cup qualifying in 2013.
While Donovan still stands by the decision to take time off during a crucial stretch for the U.S. team in 2013, it's clear to anyone paying attention to the way Klinsmann reacted then and continues to deal with Donovan now that the move had something to do with why Donovan wasn't picked for the final World Cup roster.
Maybe that had everything to do with it.
If Donovan was invited to be part of the 30-man camp, and by both his admission and Klinsmann's he did everything right while in camp, why in the world would Klinsmann not select Donovan over a host of woefully inexperienced players who have shown little indication they can play at a world-class level?
It doesn't add up.
If Donovan—who is always incredibly candid with the media, almost to a fault—says his fitness was not an issue at camp and Klinsmann says the players he selected are just a "tiny little" bit ahead of Donovan right now, the decision must have had nothing to do with camp at all.
The decision obviously had everything to do with 2013 and the rift it caused between coach and player. So why include Donovan in the list of 30 if there was nothing he could do to get into the final 23? To embarrass him? To anger fans of U.S. soccer?
If he did everything right, was there anything else Donovan could have done during camp to change this decision?
Are there still people out there who believe Klinsmann when he says the decision was all about current form?
(Clarence Goodson would like to remind us to keep current form in mind when looking at the brief and uninspiring tape John Brooks has recorded in a USMNT jersey on the back line, too. At least Donovan was given an explanation for his exclusion. Goodson didn't even get that.)
A few days before the roster release, Klinsmann said he was only looking at Donovan as a striker, thereby putting the writing for exclusion on the wall in big bold letters.
At the time I thought it was just a bluff by the U.S. manager, lighting a fire under the group at camp that nobody—not even the best player in this country's history—was safely on the plane to Brazil.
The decision was obviously not a bluff, and the comment about Donovan being just a striker gave Klinsmann the ability to deflect some of the backlash from not picking him.
Should Landon Donovan have made the World Cup roster?
If Klinsmann truly doesn't think Donovan can play midfield at this point in his career, he was able to limit the comparisons for roster inclusion to just a handful of potentially more worthy players, including Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski and Terrence Boyd.
Certainly Dempsey is a lock, and Johannsson has looked superb off the bench in his recent call-ups to the national team. Boyd is behind Donovan in line as a reserve striker, and Wondolowski has been in much better form—scoring five MLS goals to zero for Donovan before camp began—this season.
There is no way Klinsmann was going to leave Altidore off the list despite the manager's edict for selecting players with both form and fitness heading into Brazil. Altidore, who scored one goal and had one assist for Sunderland in just shy of 2,000 minutes this season, was a lock to make the team, putting Donovan on the outside.
While the rest of the world questions how Klinsmann can justify including 18-year old Julian Green, who is not playing top-flight football and has done absolutely nothing for the national team after making the decision to play for the United States over Germany, he doesn't have to answer that. They simply play different positions.
While the rest of the world wonders how Donovan is not more valuable to the team than Brad Davis or Mix Diskerud, who has shown flashes in his short time with the full national squad but certainly doesn't seem ready to lock down a World Cup-level midfield, Klinsmann can avoid the conversation altogether, because neither of those players are strikers.
Only, neither is Donovan. Not exclusively.
While he plays up top for the Galaxy, Donovan has always used his versatility on the field to his advantage at the international level. Sure he's a step or two slower than he was four or eight years ago, but as a 20-minute substitute with the game on the line, there isn't an American player on the planet most of us would choose over Donovan as a spark off the bench.
Klinsmann knows that, and deep down he has to know that the experience Donovan would bring to the World Cup in June trumps any "tiny little" advantage some players have over him at camp in May.
This decision was made months ago, which is why it made little sense to include Donovan in the group of 30 players if Klinsmann had no intention of selecting him for the final 23.
On Thursday, Donovan was told he wouldn't be making the trip to Brazil. On Sunday, he had his best game of the season.
Klinsmann has said if a player—sorry, a striker—gets hurt, Donovan will be the first person he calls. After his record-setting performance Sunday, Donovan has proved, with words and actions, he is ready to answer that call. He has been for quite some time.