There was plenty of disappointment among American soccer fans following the United States' crushing 2-1 defeat to Belgium in the round of 16 Tuesday at the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps nobody felt worse than USMNT legend Landon Donovan, though.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann controversially left the Los Angeles Galaxy star off his squad in Brazil, but Donovan was still an interested spectator who rooted on his former teammates and provided commentary on the squad's performance on ESPN. Speaking Wednesday, he praised the players for their effort level but questioned Klinsmann's tactical decisions, according to Scott French of MLSsoccer.com:
I think we're all disappointed in what happened yesterday [against Belgium]. I think the most disappointing is we didn't seem like we gave it a real effort, from a tactical standpoint. I thought the guys did everything they could, they did everything that was asked of them, but I don't think we were set up to succeed yesterday, and that was tough to watch.
The United States sat back and defended for much of the match rather than being the aggressor. While that helped the Yanks push the match to extra time, it was ultimately their undoing. The Americans weathered a storm that saw the Belgians put 38 shots toward the goal, while the United States countered with just 14.
American goalkeeper Tim Howard put on a performance for the ages, recording 16 saves to keep Team USA in it. But the Belgian attack was ultimately too much to survive, netting two goals in the extra session to advance.
Team USA showed flashes of brilliance in the latter stages, as Julian Green scored to cut Belgium's lead in half. The Americans nearly equalized on a couple of occasions but were unable to find the back of the net a second time.
With that in mind, Donovan didn't agree with the change in philosophy that the United States underwent during the tournament:
They were set up in a way that was opposite from what they've been the past couple years, which is opening up, passing, attacking – trying to do that. And the team's been successful that way. Why they decided to switch that in the World Cup, none of us will know. From a playing standpoint, I think the guys will probably be disappointed in the way things went.
Donovan admitted that attacking with more vim and vigor wouldn't have guaranteed a win by any means, but he felt as though the players would have embraced that style more:
Hindsight is 20/20, so in hindsight you would say we should've been more attacking. Maybe if we had been more attacking, we would have gotten four counterattack goals scored against us. So you never know. ... But my feeling as a player, if I'm in that locker room before that game—before the Germany game, before the Belgium game—and the coach walked in and said we're playing a 4-5-1 and Clint [Dempsey] is up top by himself, I would have been disappointed. Because I would have said let's go for it. I want a chance to go for it and try to win the game.
Although Donovan didn't address his status with the squad, it is tough for fans to not think about what might have been had he made the team. Striker Chris Wondolowski made a mess of a golden opportunity late in regulation against Belgium that would have sent the U.S. to the quarterfinals.
Among those who believe Donovan could have been an asset during that moment and throughout the match is Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times:
Despite Wondolowski's heartbreaking miss, Donovan was firmly behind him.
"If that chance fell 10 more times, you want Wondo to be on the end of it," Donovan said. "That's a perfect Wondo goal. You would have expected that that went in, and maybe the one out of 10 times happened that he didn't score. It's disappointing."
Also, Donovan didn't allow his exclusion from the team to adversely impact his feelings for American soccer. After Team USA's unfortunate exit, Donovan tweeted a message of support:
Donovan didn't necessarily come out and chastise Klinsmann by name, but it is quite clear his criticisms are directed toward the coach. That isn't particularly shocking, as he probably feels slighted.
It is tough to disagree with Donovan's assessment. The United States looked great in its 2-2 group draw against Portugal when it pressed forward and created chances.
There was inherent risk in doing something similar against an offensively gifted team like Belgium, but it might have been better to go down swinging.
As easy as it is for Donovan to make proclamations from the sidelines, there is plenty of merit to what he said.
Regardless, Klinsmann looks poised to stay on through the 2018 World Cup in Russia, giving him a chance to build on his team's performance in Brazil so that the United States can offer up the type of displays Donovan was looking for.
Before that, Klinsmann will get a chance to evaluate and polish his squad through competitions like the Gold Cup in 2015.
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