His second-to-last World Cup goal for the U.S. produced one of the great moments in American soccer history. There was Landon Donovan, calmly sweeping the ball into the net in the last, frantic minutes of the third and final group game against Algeria in 2010 in Pretoria, South Africa. As he ran to the corner flag to celebrate, he was mobbed by his delirious teammates; Donovan had delivered them into the knockout round. In the quarterfinals against Ghana a few days later, it was Donovan who stepped up to take a penalty kick, which he dispatched like the veteran he is, although the U.S. would lose in extra time.
But now you can call him Lan-done. Or Gone-ovan.
Donovan, one of the anchors of the U.S. national soccer team for the past decade, was cut Thursday by coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who reduced his 30-man squad to the mandatory 23. For pro soccer players looking to book a spot at the World Cup, the last cut is the cruelest. Joining Donovan on the sidelines were two other 2010 teammates, Maurice Edu and Clarence Goodson. Brad Evans, Michael Parkhurst, Joe Corona and Terrence Boyd were also told they won’t be making the trip.
Klinsmann called dumping Donovan “the toughest decision in my coaching career.”
“I just see some other players slightly ahead of him,” Klinsmann said.
Among those are Aron Johannsson, a 23-year-old, American-born, Iceland-raised forward who plays in Holland and has impressed Klinsmann with his ability to make an impact on a game. He also selected 31-year-old Chris Wondolowski of the MLS San Jose Earthquakes. A few minutes watching Wondo play and you’d think he might be a good addition to your weekend pub team; what he lacks in style he makes up for in his penchant for scoring goals, which is not a bad thing in a World Cup.
On the other hand, Klinsmann also picked Jozy Altidore, who plays for Sunderland in England’s Premier League and who has been allergic to the goal this season. Still, Altidore is also 23, and his strength at holding and shielding the ball is valuable. And Klinsmann prefers guys who play in top leagues. That leaves Clint Dempsey, late of Fulham and now with the MLS Seattle Sounders, as his most experienced forward. The least experienced forward is Julian Green, an 18-year-old son of an American father and German mother who plays for Bayern Munich, Germany’s top club, although he spent most of the season on the B team.
The squad also includes a number of German-born players — like Green they are sons of American servicemen — whose selection will provide some ruggedness to the squad as well as European experience. They include John Brooks, Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson, who play in Germany’s Bundesliga, as well as Jermaine Jones, who now plays for Besiktas in Turkey.
Donovan’s omission from the roster, although shocking, isn’t altogether unexpected. When Klinsmann took over as U.S. coach two years ago, he warned the veteran players that their status was meaningless to him. He wanted players to compete for positions at every practice, and have no expectations of starting, which has sometimes been a point of contention within the team. They want to know where they stand. Donovan, burned out from playing constantly in the MLS, in the Premiership for Everton, and for the national team, decided to take a four month sabbatical last year. That never sat well with Klinsmann.
In leaving Donovan behind, Klinsmann is giving up a ton of World Cup experience. It’s something that a team such Italy would hesitate to do — the Italians respect maturity in a player, particularly when it comes to high-pressure games. But given the Americans’ ridiculous first-round schedule — Ghana, Portugal, Germany — Klinsmann feels he needs more youth, and perhaps an X factor in players such as Johannsson.
Donovan isn’t the first U.S. legend to be let go this way. Before the 1998 World Cup in France, coach Steve Sampson dropped John Harkes, a stalwart, hardnosed footballer he had previously named “Captain for Life” over what was then described as Harkes’ refusal to play as a holding midfielder and other “leadership” issues. The reason was more complicated than that, but Harkes’ exit left Sampson with a hole that his other players couldn’t fill. The U.S. lost three straight in the opening round, including a game against Germany — in which Jurgen Klinsmann, by the way, scored a stunning goal. Sampson lost his job shortly after the tournament. Klinsmann understands that if Donovan’s goal scoring isn’t replicated by one of the 23 he picked, he’s going to suffer the same fate.
2014 FIFA WORLD CUP – U.S. ROSTER BY POSITION | DETAILED ROSTER
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Nürnberg), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)