Whether he deserved inclusion in the team or not, there's no getting around the fact that Landon Donovan almost certainly wouldn't have had a demonstrable impact on the United States' chances at the 2014 World Cup.
When Jurgen Klinsmann unveiled the final 23-man roster headed to Brazil this summer, there was an initial shock that one of the biggest stars in U.S. soccer history was missing:
You could understand from where the bemusement was stemming.
Ask anybody who he'd most prefer between Donovan, Julian Green and Brad Davis, and almost everyone would tell you the Los Angeles Galaxy No. 10.
Speaking to reporters after his exclusion, Donovan remained civil but revealed his surprise at Klinsmann's decision.
As Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl wrote at the time, Donovan had a role in the World Cup roster, at the very least as a super sub, and Donovan's disposition isn't as such that he'd create problems in the dressing room if he wasn't starting every match.
But in truth, would taking Donovan have improved the United States to a considerable degree?
From a tactical standpoint, it seems unlikely.
Klinsmann viewed Donovan as a forward, which never was a good fit for the coach's formation. He's not a natural striker, and that can be a problem when you only play with one forward.
The false nine has worked in the past with Barcelona and Spain, but Donovan is far from the level of Lionel Messi or Cesc Fabregas.
ESPN FC's Adrian Melville (subscription required) examined where on the pitch Donovan would've been utilized and came to this conclusion:
The current version of Donovan was trapped between two possible positions, attacking midfielder and supporting forward, on Klinsmann's 30-man roster. And based on the roles that Donovan likely could have filled in Brazil, along with the depth of the final roster, it appears the United States will not suffer a significant on-field loss without the 32-year-old, who admittedly was struggling to get in shape and find his form.
Melville argued that Davis and Graham Zusi have been playing well for their respective teams in MLS this year and would make better attacking midfielders based on fo. He also felt that Donovan couldn't have played as a lone forward in Klinsmann's 4-2-3-1 formation, with Chris Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson and Jozy Altidore the more optimal options up top.
Time moves on, and the all-time leader in goals for the U.S. is no exception to that rule.
Sure, he has amassed the second-most caps in national team history and appeared in three World Cups, not to mention that he's now the highest goalscorer in Major League Soccer history.
What some have forgotten is that Donovan had been on a poor run of form before notching his brace against the Philadelphia Union. In his first seven matches of the 2014 season, he had gone scoreless.
More than that, Donovan also flattered to deceive in his national team matches.
Some may look at his Gold Cup performance as evidence of Donovan's importance to the team. While he was one of the United States' best players, almost every country had taken a weakened squad.
Playing well against CONCACAF "B" teams isn't the best test of one's quality.
Simply put, Donovan isn't the player he was four years ago, and he couldn't have been a major difference-maker in Brazil even if he was on the roster.
Put him on the team, and the United States still looks like it will finish third in Group G and maybe even fourth given Ghana's victimization of the U.S. at the World Cup.
Even before the draw revealed the Americans' arduous road to the knockout stage, most supporters should've come to grips—if they hadn't already—that the 2014 World Cup was bound to be a transitional World Cup.
Replacements for key defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo didn't look to be coming through the pipeline, while Donovan and Clint Dempsey—the two most vital attacking players of the last few years—would be in their 30s by the time summer 2014 rolled around.
One of the biggest reasons Klinsmann is such a good fit for right now is his ability to nurture young talent and build for the future. As Germany national team manager, he helped bring along many of the stars who transformed Die Mannschaft into a world power once again.
U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati hired Klinsmann with the expectation that he would do the same for the States. Maybe it would not be competitive for a few years, but the payoff would be felt years down the road.
Donovan was merely a casualty of Klinsmann's youth movement, and at the end of the day, the United States isn't much the worse for wear without him.
Did the 32-year-old deserve at least a place on the 23-man roster for the World Cup? Most definitely, considering who was picked ahead of him.
More germane to this discussion, would taking Donovan have secured passage to the knockout stages for the United States? Probably not.