Whither Landon Donovan?
The most prolific scorer in the history of the US Men's National Team may be left off the roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this June.
Through 154 international appearances, Landon Donovan has scored 57 goals -- the only American to score 50 or more goals in the history of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), the international governing body of soccer for the hemisphere. His heroics in the last three World Cups have made him the biggest star of US Men's soccer.
But at age 32, Donovan's greatest physical asset -- his speed -- is deserting him. In last night's international friendly against Mexico in Phoenix, Donovan didn't make an appearance until the 59th minute. He looked sluggish in his few touches and failed to help generate any offense for the Americans who, after a stellar first half where they went ahead 2-0, had several defensive breakdowns in the second half and allowed Mexico to score a pair of goals themselves as the game ended in a 2-2 tie.
Donovan was apparently bothered by a sore knee. But USA Men's coach Jurgen Klinsman didn't like the way Donovan trained in the week leading up to the match and relegated him to a reserve role.
Is this to be his fate? Or might he be left off the team altogether and his spot taken by 18 year old phenom Julian Green?
Oh, and there was one other thing that Klinsmann said he discovered: Julian Green, who went in alongside Donovan early in the second half, just may be worth a spot on the U.S. team this summer -- maybe even Donovan’s spot.
“You saw in some moments what this kid is capable of doing,” Klinsmann said. “How he goes in the box and draws two guys. Obviously he was nervous too. He plays his first cap in front of 60,000 against Mexico. But the team welcomed him with open arms.
“You understand within 10 minutes if he’s a good player or not. Julian is a very good player. So we are happy to have him playing for us. It was a good start for him.”
As for Donovan, he didn’t start Wednesday because he looked sluggish in training and complained of a sore knee. Should he find himself as a permanent part-time player this summer after more than a decade leading the U.S. team, his spot could go to Green, a German American who didn’t become eligible to play for the U.S. until last week.
The 18-year-old is currently playing for Bayern Munich II in the fourth tier of German soccer, but he ranks third in the league with 15 goals in 23 games and Klinsmann has hinted that Green will get strong consideration for one of 23 spots on the U.S. team for the World Cup in Brazil.
“He’s a good player,” captain Clint Dempsey said. “In a tough game he was able to get some good touches.”
Donvan's storied World Cup career never translated into success with European club teams. Four times, he traveled across the Atlantic to try and make an impact with a top European side. And 4 times, he returned home, never able to really crack the line-up of the better teams. His last stint with Bayern Munich lasted just 7 games before he was "loaned" to the LA Galaxy. Donovan admitted to having trouble adjusting to the European game and culture.
In contrast to his disappointments overseas, Donovan has thrived in the American MSL. But the rest of the world sees the American game as inferior and Donovan has always ached to prove himself on the international stage.
Will he get the chance? It's almost inconceivable that Klinsman would leave Donovan off the roster -- even in favor of a talented 18 year old like Green. Donovan may be slowing down, but he has a nose for the ball and has risen to the occasion when the US needed him most. Age has not dulled his intensity or competitive spirit either.
But for the US side to get to the next level of international soccer excellence, Donovan may be left behind. Right now, the team is good -- perhaps a top 25 squad. FIFA currently ranks the US 14th in the world, but that's due almost entirely to the Yank's qualifying victories over teams like Jamaica and Panama. France, which is ranked 17th, is a more talented side than the US but plays in a much tougher qualifying group.
The US has a long way to go to become an elite team. It's what Klinsman has been hired to do and sentimentality is not likely to affect his judgment. The coach is keeping his roster choices close to his vest and probably won't name a final squad until close to the FIFA deadline of June 2.
The U.S. plays Azerbaijan in San Francisco on May 27 before heading east to face Turkey on June 1 in Harrison, N.J. Donovan will have to show Klinsman that he can still be an asset to the team, even coming off the bench.
Given his stellar career, don't count him out.