United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann deserves more credit than he is getting for building his 2014 World Cup squad with 2018 and beyond in mind.
Klinsmann could have taken the easy road and built his 2014 team around Landon Donovan and other 30-something players. Forward-thinking supporters would have been concerned about the team's prospects for the future, but everyone would have understood why Klinsmann went safe.
Klinsmann could have made his 2014 roster look remarkably like Bob Bradley's 2010 roster and try to squeeze one last tournament from a lot of aging legs.
In proving that World Cup team places are not lifetime-achievement awards, though, he killed the World Cup careers of numerous American soccer veterans and he was served several plates of sour grapes in the process.
"I think if I'm being judged based solely on what happened in camp, then I absolutely deserved to be going to Brazil," Donovan told David Leon Moore of USA Today.
“For me, I thought that certainly I would be going to the World Cup,” defender Clarence Goodson said to Geoff Lepper of MLSsoccer.com “It’s certainly something that I worked very hard for and something that I believe I’ve achieved and deserve."
Forward Eddie Johnson took to Twitter to express his feelings:
We could go on like this for a while. Almost every American player with World Cup experience that did not make Klinsmann's 23-man roster this time around had something to say.
Klinsmann certainly opened himself to criticism by taking so many young players who are unlikely to ever see the pitch in Brazil.
"Center back John Anthony Brooks, 21, is a surprise inclusion, but it’s unlikely that he’ll play much, if at all. The same goes for right back DeAndre Yedlin, 20, who beat out incumbent starter Brad Evans for a spot," wrote Marcus Kwesi O'Mard for NESN.
And remarkably, neither of those two kids are the youngest player on the team.
"The wild card is Julian Green, 18, who claimed a roster spot despite his age and inexperience," O'Mard continued.
In the wake of Donovan's exclusion from the team, the quote that grabbed the most headlines came from former USMNT coach Bruce Arena who told Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News that "if there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup."
Arena was exactly right. Klinsmann does not have 23 players better than Donovan.
That's the whole point. That's the problem.
Almost certainly, Klinsmann does not even have 11 players better than Donovan to take to this World Cup. As great a career as Donovan had, he is not the player now that he was in 2010. If 2014 Donovan is one of your team's best players, your team is not very good.
If Donovan, Johnson, Goodson and others were transcendent stars, the United States would have achieved more than a round-of-16 loss to a beatable Ghana side in 2010. There was no reason for Klinsmann to believe that the same group (four years older) could have exceeded that result.
The 2014 version of the United States men's national team faces long odds against surviving past the group stage. Per Oddschecker.com, the Americans are favored to finish last in Group G.
Klinsmann knows this, and he knows that the first step to eventually winning a World Cup is making qualification for knockout play a virtual formality the way it is for nations like Germany, Argentina and Spain.
That means finding 11 players better than Donovan. Then 15. Then 19. Then 23.
Klinsmann could not do that in time for the 2014 World Cup, and it is doubtful that he will be able to do so in the next four years, either.
But the only way to find out how long that process will ultimately take is to get it started as soon as possible.
So Klinsmann has done the right thing for United States men's soccer, even if a lot of egos were bruised in the process.
Regardless of how it turns out, Klinsmann deserves significant credit for choosing a long-term vision over a short-term wish.
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