Landon Donovan’s stunning exclusion from the U.S. World cup squad has nothing to do with soccer.
It’s about power and control.
To assert his dominance over the squad, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann needed to get rid of the most influential, the most creative, the most talented player the U.S. has ever seen. So he did.
Read between the lines in the various reports summarizing the relationship between Donovan and Klinsmann and it’s clear it was not healthy.
Klinsmann wasn’t impressed by the central figure in his team thumbing his nose at the sport, the national team and the American soccer establishment by taking a sabbatical Donovan had described as necessary for his mental health.
He was unimpressed with the contained, reserved Donovan he believed failed to visibly display the fire the sideline-cheering Klinsmann wanted to see.
And Klinsmann wanted his own man captaining the team, not a holdover from previous incarnations.
That’s why the likes of Timmy Chandler, despite his apparent reticence to cast his lot with the U.S. national team, was cajoled to return to its ranks.
And that’s why Donovan, despite maintaining his role as a pivotal figure on the team upon his return, had to produce blinding displays (see above) to demonstrate his worth to a coach clearly looking for reasons to cut him.
This was a political decision, not a sporting one. And Klinsmann knows it.
Which is why he doesn’t speak directly to the media, but instead has a canned statement distributed to various outlets laying out the supposed weak rationale that other players were ahead of Donovan in unspecified ways.
Klinsmann recently said he didn’t consider Donovan a midfielder, but a forward.
Which is a handy way of providing a justifiable backdrop to his decision. Thirty-something forwards are not exactly in the prime of their international careers, while midfielders still can be.
This kind of political maneuvering is one reason Donovan needed a break from the national team. And why he may not return even if Klinsmann asks because of injury issues to players who were picked to go to Brazil. And why Donovan may well be so sick of the entire thing I wouldn’t be surprised to see him walk away from the sport and hang up his cleats at the end of the season.
The U.S. chances of progressing beyond the group stage in Brazil was already a long shot with him in the team. Now that opportunity seems even less likely.
Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer may well know that and have an eye on 2018 so this tournament can provide experience for younger players who unlike Donovan will be around four years from now.
But they underestimate public opinion and expectations at their peril.
The American public hasn’t given up on the U.S. Nor have they given up on Donovan.
As for Klinsmann, he had better see progress both in results and the quality of the product on the field.
Because he hasn’t yet earned the right to see some slack cut for himself.
And without measurable, perceptible improvement, American soccer fans may well give up quickly on him and everything U.S. Soccer officials believed they could achieve with a coach who may know the sport, but doesn’t comprehend the respect or loyalty a figure like Donovan should command.