Landon Donovan's Career Will Forever Be Pockmarked by 2014 World Cup Snub

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Landon Donovan's Career Will Forever Be Pockmarked by 2014 World Cup Snub
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On Tuesday, U.S. soccer announced that Landon Donovan would be given a final send-off match with the United States men's national team when the team takes on Ecuador on October 10 in East Hartford, Connecticut.

In his international career, Donovan set records for the most goals (57) and most assists (58) in the history of the U.S. men's national team. He also gave the team, and its fans, some of their most iconic moments and most impressive victories.

Domestically, Donovan carried the banner of American soccer for over a decade at a time when the sport rarely pierced the American Zeitgeist.

For soccer fans who lived through the dark ages of American soccer, Donovan is and forever will be a hero.

At a time when the U.S. men's national team was an utter joke on the international stage, Donovan was the one player who could give the U.S. a fighting chance in games and the one player who gave U.S. fans hope for the future.

For younger fans, who didn't live through this period and are accustomed to a new era when the English Premier League can be readily found on television, U.S. games can be easily watched in bars or at public watch parties and supporters groups like the American Outlaws can be found nearly everywhere.

The younger fans will never truly understand what Donovan means to the older generation of fans.

The farewell match also seems sure to create some awkward moments between Donovan and U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who earlier this year decided not to take the U.S. legend to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

When that decision was made, younger fans tended to defend, or at least understand Klinsmann's decision not to bring Donovan to the World Cup. But for another segment of fans, typically older, the Donovan snub will forever be an unforgivable decision.

Younger fans seemed more willing to accept Klinsmann's ridiculous assertion that he saw Donovan solely as a forward, or agree that Donovan's form wasn't up to par, or say that Donovan's sabbatical through the winter of 2012-13 cost him his place.

But for older fans, none of those explanations make sense, and Klinsmann's decision will forever seem a personal one.

There's no doubt that Donovan's MLS form to start off the 2014 campaign wasn't great, but it's clear that this was both an anomaly and something Klinsmann was willing to dismiss for other players.

No player's place on a roster should be secured by their performances in past World Cups, but Donovan's form hadn't been fading since 2010. In fact, in 2013, he was spectacular for the U.S. and led the team to the Gold Cup title with a dominating performance, scoring five goals and racking up seven assists.

Then, against archrival Mexico in September in a crucial World Cup qualifier, Donovan contributed on both U.S. tallies in the 2-0 win with a goal and an assist.

Having a poor 10 weeks to open up his 2014 MLS season surely shouldn't have overshadowed his obvious international quality. And poor club form was something Klinsmann was quick to overlook for Clint Dempsey, who scored one goal in a 19-game stretch in 2013-14 for the Seattle Sounders and while on loan at Fulham.

Klinsmann also overlooked the poor club form of Jozy Altidore, who had one goal in 31 appearances for Sunderland in the 2013-14 campaign.

At other times in his tenure, Klinsmann continually called in Brek Shea, despite almost no playing time at the club level. He kept calling in Jermaine Jones despite a series of underwhelming performances at the international level and repeated problems at the club level. And, Klinsmann kept Julian Green on the World Cup roster despite only playing three minutes of first-team football prior to the World Cup.

Clearly, club form was not that big of a concern for Klinsmann when making his roster choices for the 2014 World Cup.

Once the team was in Brazil, the performances of the players taken ahead of Donovan proved the folly of Klinsmann's choice. Chris Wondolowski was ineffective up top and, although it seems a bit harsh to put his entire tournament down to one play, missed a chance to advance the U.S. to the quarterfinals when he skied his open shot against Belgium in stoppage time.

Brad Davis was poor on the wing in his one start in the World Cup, and regular starters Alejandro Bedoya (who has zero goals and one assist in his last 13 starts for the U.S.) and Graham Zusi provided little in the way of attacking flair.

While Klinsmann said he saw Donovan as a forward, Donovan has excelled in both his international and club career on the wing and surely could have done better than Davis, Bedoya and probably Zusi.

Further highlighting Klinsmann's mistake was the injury of Altidore. Once Altidore was hurt and Dempsey was forced to push up into the target forward role, the U.S. did not have a clear No. 10 to fill in as the playmaker—a role that Donovan was uniquely qualified for.

Instead, the U.S. used Michael Bradley out of position, a decision that didn't pay off.

Finally, there is Donovan's sabbatical.

While the timing of Donovan's break wasn't ideal for the U.S., which was going through World Cup qualifying at the time, it was a much-deserved and much-needed break for Donovan.

Donovan has always been very open about his emotions, and he spoke via Slate at length about how the game was wearing on him.

While it may not have made sense to Klinsmann, for U.S. fans who had seen Donovan carry the torch of U.S. soccer for over a decade, the sabbatical was not that big of a deal. The bigger worry was if Donovan would come back at all.

Donovan had not only been the face of Major League Soccer and the U.S. men's national team, but he had also spent three MLS offseasons overseas on loans between 2009 and 2012.

He was clearly burned out and wanted to rejuvenate himself for one last run with the U.S. national team at the World Cup—something Klinsmann didn't see fit to give him.

While no one will ever know exactly what was going on in the mind of Klinsmann, this excellent piece by Sean Steffen of Corner of The Galaxy hypothesized that Donovan's sabbatical didn't fit in with Klinsmann's German sense of commitment. Another piece by Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl argued that Klinsmann's lack of faith in Donovan extended back to Klinsmann's time with Bayern Munich and Donovan's failed loan to the club.

Either way, to many U.S. fans, the decision clearly seemed like a personal one, not one based on form or ability.

Since his snub, Donovan has continued to prove what a mistake leaving him off the 2014 World Cup roster really was.

Shortly after being cut, Donovan set MLS' all-time goalscoring record. Then he went on to score the game-winning goal on a fantastic effort against Bayern Munich in the MLS All-Star game, and he continues to prove week-in and week-out that he is still a top-class player.

While many fans will continue to mistakenly argue that Donovan's exclusion from the 2014 World Cup was justified, it clearly was not. Donovan's versatility could have contributed to the team in many ways, and the U.S.' lack of creativity in the attack was clearly missing his presence.

Donovan will likely go down as the best U.S. player ever, but his career will always be pockmarked by Klinsmann's 2014 World Cup snub.

 

Follow me on Twitter @JohnDHalloran

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