“Moving on, is a simple thing, what it leaves behind is hard.”
– David Mustaine
It’s been a pretty tough week for a considerable portion of the US Men’s National Team support and media. Many are incised with the implausible reality of marching into this World Cup without our most decorated war hero, Landon Donovan.
Left off the 23-man US roster that will be taken to Brazil — he is one of the seven alternates that could get called in should there be an injury, mind you — Donovan’s surprise exclusion has left many concerned about our chances this tournament. Members of the media have ranted against the decision, fans have taken to complaining on social media, and the announcers in the one US game since spent half the evening talking about him.
So why the big fuss?
The 32-year-old Landon is arguably the finest field player the US has ever produced. He’s our country’s all-time leading scorer with 57 goals, and has the second most appearances with 156. A veteran of three World Cups, he even scored the goal that clinched qualification for this World Cup against Mexico last September. He even became Major League Soccer’s all-time leading scorer over the weekend by notching his 135th and 136th gdfoals. And yet despite all of that, he’s still been left out in the cold by Jurgen Klinsmann.
Sacrilege, right? Not exactly.
This isn’t the first time an established star has been left at home for a major international tournament, and it certainly won’t be the last. And believe it or not, the end result isn’t always apocalyptic.
Critics of Klinsmann’s decision will undoubtedly point to the last time an established US star was left off the roster: the disastrous 1998 tournament in France saw the US finish dead last in the field of 32 after head coach Steve Sampson axed captain John Harkes weeks before the tournament. However, I’ll politely remind them that was a completely different scenario, the result of far more nefarious circumstances and an ill-advised 3-6-1 formation utilized on the pitch.
Let me instead direct your attention the example of one Raúl González.
The former Spanish forward is rightly considered one of the best players his country has ever produced. He captained Real Madrid, leading them to six La Liga titles and scoring the fourth most goals all-time in league history with 228 tallies. Raúl also lead Real to three Champions League trophies — in which he scored in two of those finals — and established himself as that competition’s all-time goal scoring leader with a haul of 71 goals. A veteran of three World Cups himself, Raúl was also Spain’s all-time leading goal scorer with 44 goals. Yet at the ripe age of 31, then Spain manager Luis Aragonés decided to leave him off the Euro 2008 roster.
Sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?
And just like with Donovan’s omission, Aragonés was skewered by the press and supporters for his decision to leave “the greatest footballer Spain have ever produced” off his team for a very important tournament.
So did the decision leave Raúl at home lead to fire and brimstone and the end of Spanish football? Hardly. The Raúl-less Spain side went on to wow the field and win their first major trophy in over 40 years — and then went on to win the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012.
Leaving Raúl home seemed to remove the shackles from Spain’s play, allowing Barcelona-style tiki-taka to blossom in his absence. Prior to that point, Spain had played in a style that better suited their captain’s play, but wasn’t near as effective in the results column. Now, by no means am I insinuating that Raúl being left off the team can alone explain the sudden success. But it did have a noticeable effect.
Perhaps Klinsmann is hoping that leaving Donovan at home will inspire a similar result. Without Landon in the team, the US side could possibly blossom into the team Jurgen wants them to become. I’m not saying this is a forgone conclusion, but it is something we could see happen.
Look, I was just as surprised as everyone else to see Landon left off the shortlist for Brazil. And if I had been the man (un)lucky enough to pick the squad, he would have been in my team.
But the guy was never going to play on forever, and this day would have to come at some point — and sooner rather than later. Never mind that his form has been far from impressive this season in MLS, or that he admitted that his body can’t handle training at 100% any longer, or that he willingly abandoned the team in the middle of qualification to go find himself in Cambodia. Everyone wants to ignore those points while they point at important goals he scored a year or ten ago.
This team may well crash and burn in Brazil this summer; Group of Death, you know. But the US Men’s National Team “Landon Donovan Era” has come to its end either way — if a bit earlier than most of us had expected. It’s high time that we all accept that fact, move on and support the team that is going to Brazil, even if it’s hard to leave one our favorite memory makers behind to do so.