US Soccer wasn't supposed to announce their final World Cup squad until after their first friendly match a week from now, but they decided to drop the bomb early. On Thursday night, the squad went public and, much to the shock of the soccer-following world, Landon Donovan wasn't on it. The iconic midfielder has been playing poorly as of late, but it was still a stunner.
While Donovan's exclusion from the United States' final 23-man squad for the World Cup was the biggest story to come out of the roster release on Thursday, it certainly wasn't the only one. In many other cases, experienced and in-form players were left off for youngsters, while a couple of potential future stars were left out for older options in other spots. And ultimately, Jurgen Klinsmann's squad selection made a lot of sense, even if an understandable initial emotional response made it difficult to perceive initially.
This U.S. roster is an odd mix of unproven youngsters and older players who are highly unlikely to do anything for the team in the future. Donovan's exclusion at the expense of players like Julian Green and Mikkel Diskerud -- though they're not like-for-like replacements -- seems a bit odd when Chris Wondolowski is getting in ahead of Terrence Boyd and guys like Brad Davis and DaMarcus Beasley are making the team.
There is a method to the madness, though. It's actually not too tough to make sense of what Klinsmann is doing, even if the process looks a bit odd on the surface.
First, the big elephant in the room: Donovan. He hasn't scored a goal since October, he's looked off the pace for the LA Galaxy and he's admitted he can't train as hard as he used to, but his World Cup experience and knack for scoring clutch goals in big spots kept him in frame and granted him a shot to prove to Klinsmann that he still belonged. He obviously didn't do enough in a week of training camp to outweigh his poor form and Klinsmann's preferences, and he was sent packing.
Klinsmann explains his decision to leave Donovan off the World Cup roster.
Klinsmann can't say that he only took players who were in-form and that no one got in on their reputation, however. Jozy Altidore and Omar Gonzalez, in particular, have been truly abysmal of late. Gonzalez might be relegated to fourth center back duty by the time camp is over and both Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson have very real cases to start over Altidore, even if they're very different kinds of players. But being different is what is keeping Jozy on this team. His size and power give him something no other U.S. attacker has, and it's keeping him in Klinsmann's plans.
Donovan might bring something to the team that no one else can, but whatever that thing is, it's intangible. The possibility exists that there's some unique "clutch" setting in Donovan's brain, and that he'll turn it on when he's needed, but it's just as possible that his body simply won't allow him to reach his previous heights, clutchness or not. At any rate, Donovan hasn't proven that he can perform at a top level recently, and Klinsmann isn't going to take his greatness on faith.
What he can evaluate -- demonstrable on-pitch skills -- probably led him to a realization that every bench option is better than Donovan, whether he was being evaluated as a winger, a central attacking midfielder or a forward. Wondolowski and Johannsson are in fantastic form, Davis has better set-piece delivery and can better help the team keep the ball to kill off a game, the same goes for Mix Diskerud, and Alejandro Bedoya is better defensively. It's difficult to envision a situation in which Donovan is a preferred option off the bench than any of those players.
The second elephant in the room is Julian Green, who no one other than Klinsmann's staff and the Bayern Munich coaches have had any reasonable chance to evaluate. He plays in the semi-professional German fourth division, has made two substitute appearances for Bayern's senior squad and has one USMNT cap. He's undoubtedly the biggest prospect in the U.S. player pool, but he also has less than 30 minutes of high-level pro soccer under his belt.
But Donovan wasn't in competition with Green, and he likely knows that. Green is probably the 23rd man, brought along to get him experience and help to groom him as the next Donovan, only potentially much, much better. He's like Theo Walcott on England's 2006 World Cup team, and that's OK. Klinsmann isn't sacrificing a potential game-changing sub by bringing Green. He has four guys on his bench who can do whatever Donovan could do.
The case of DeAndre Yedlin is a bit different. He's been flashy in Seattle and has certainly turned in a handful of very good defensive performances, but he's shaky defensively most of the time. There's a reason that Klinsmann picked his own club teammate, usual midfielder Brad Evans, over him to start at right back in key qualifiers. But apparently, Klinsmann would rather have the flash and potential of Yedlin in the big show than the reliability of Evans.
Yedlin is somewhere between Green and a squad player picked entirely on merit. He's here to get experience so that he can potentially become a star for the U.S. in the future, but he has more pro minutes under his belt than Green and is probably the more ready of the two to see time in Brazil. He could also be a true Bedoya backup -- a defensive sub on the right wing.
Remembering Landon Donovan's greatest moments
Landon Donovan isn't just America's leader in goals scored, but also in unforgettable moments. He's not headed to Brazil, and whether that's right or wrong, let's remember his greatest work before moving forward.
The other two big questionable picks -- German-American defenders Timothy Chandler and John Brooks -- are an entirely different story. Contrary to popular opinion, they have earned their spots and are among the 23 best American players in the world at the moment. Brooks was a disaster in a recent friendly against Ukraine and Chandler refused to leave his club to play in Central America in the middle of the club season, making them unworthy of a spot in the eyes of many, but they performed for their clubs in Germany all year long. They're rock solid Bundesliga starters, and if they didn't show up to training camp looking committed and ready to execute on Klinsmann's plans, they would have been cut in favor of Evans and Clarence Goodson.
Klinsmann's United States squad is, ultimately, a sensible one. There are eight or nine clear starters, a couple of qualified players battling for the opening starting positions and a bench full of in-form players that fill a very specific role. There are a couple of guys who are just along for the ride, but Klinsmann was always likely to use just 17 or 18 of the players that he called up anyway.
Even if injuries and suspensions wreck the team, it's unlikely that Klinsmann will find himself in a situation where he must start Green or Yedlin and is left wishing he'd brought Donovan, Evans or Michael Parkhurst to Brazil.
Once everyone comes down from the initial shock of the squad announcement, Klinsmann's vision should become clear. There shouldn't be any controversy here. He got it right.
Forwards: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski, Aron Johannsson