Jürgen Klinsmann’s omission of Landon Donovan from his final 23-man World Cup roster yesterday was a massive hydrogen bomb that exploded over US Soccer. Naturally, there were roster selections that were overshadowed by its mushroom cloud. I’m going to try and restrain myself from mentioning Donovan for the rest of this, but I can’t make any promises. That’s how big this news was. Twitter exploded with confusion and fury from casual fans and diehards alike, but however foolish (or brilliant?) this decision may be, other choices were made that are awfully surprising as well.
Athleticism over Experience
One of the things that stuck out to me was Klinsmann’s clear preference of athleticism over experience. While it may seem like youth was the biggest ticket to this year’s team because of Julian Green (18), DeAndre Yedlin (20), and John Brooks (21), this World Cup squad will actually be older on average than the 2010 version. Still, only five players on this team have played in a World Cup, so Klinsmann was not valuing experience with his picks.
I think he took a long look at the teams in our group (of Death) and decided we needed as much athleticism as possible. Ghana’s physicality and speed has knocked us out of the last two World Cups, so it’s a safe bet that higher-caliber athletes will be needed in our first World Cup match on June 16th. Next we have Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo’s thundering runs at the defense. Yes, it helps to have great positioning against them, but even more important to have guys who can take away some of that athleticism advantage. Lastly, Germany is an insanely skilled and organized group, but they have plenty of athletes as well. It’s a gamble from Klinsmann, but considering who we will play, it’s a calculated one.
The Individual Battles
With 18 of the 23 entering their first World Cup, experience is at a minimum. Three of the final 7 players to be cut had previous World Cup appearances: Donovan, Maurice Edu, and defender Clarence Goodson. So, what do the guys chosen over them bring to the table? (Disclaimer: Shockingly, I have no inside information to Jürgen’s decision process. These are just the consensus battles in the 30-player pool.)
Julian Green and Brad Davis over Donovan: Green has just 30 minutes of top-level international soccer under his belt, so he better be looking real good in training. More likely? There was a deal made before he agreed to play for the United States that Klinsmann would bring him to this World Cup. Davis is a set-piece specialist with a wicked left foot, but the 32-year-old Houston Dynamo veteran only has 14 national caps. He just fell into favor with Klinsmann at the exact right time. Lady Luck has shined on Davis.
Look, I don’t agree with Donovan getting left off (Have you noticed I’ve mentioned his name 3 more times than I said I would?). There is no way that Davis and Green bring more to the table than him, but Alexi Lalas summed it up well.
Again, life isn't fair and soccer isn't fair. A WC roster isn't about form, merit or history. It's simply a coach's preference.
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) May 22, 2014
Mix Diskerud over Edu: I’m one of Diskerud’s biggest supporters and even I was surprised by his inclusion over Edu. He’s five years younger and only has 17 USMNT caps to Edu’s 46. Diskerud certainly can create more scoring chances off the bench, but we’re again trading a stable, experienced presence for a young, unproven one.
Timothy Chandler and John Brooks over Goodson: Here we have a case of two German Bundesliga defenders taken over an MLS guy. Sure, Goodson has played in Denmark and Norway previously, but the younger, current overseas defenders were selected. Like Edu, Goodson had 46 national team caps to Chandler and Brooks’ combined 13. They might be the USMNT’s future on the back line, but they will have to prove they were the right choice for this summer.
Yedlin over Brad Evans: Both of these guys play for the Seattle Sounders and I thought certainly the more polished and older Evans would get the nod, even though he has not played in a World Cup himself. In fact, many pundits seemed to think that if Geoff Cameron starts at center back, Evans would be our starting right back. In fact, I predicted that the three backs sent home would be Yedlin, Brooks, and Chandler. They’re all going, so clearly I know what’s what. It turns out Klinsmann is tapping the speedy Yedlin to keep pace with Group G’s otherworldly attackers.
Looking Ahead to Russia 2018?
It has been noted by some that these choices make more sense when you remember that Klinsmann is signed as USMNT coach through 2018. In light of our draw into the Group of Death, is he preparing for the next World Cup in Russia by bringing highly inexperienced young guns as subs? If this is indeed Klinsmann’s strategy, then that is beyond stupid. To sacrifice the biggest event in the sport for a better chance at winning the next one you haven’t yet qualified for is blatantly ridiculous. This isn’t the Philadelphia 76ers tanking last season to get a better draft pick for next year. Anything can happen at a World Cup. 2002’s United States team was one bad call and a couple unfortunate bounces from a semifinal appearance.
I don’t think Klinsmann is consciously doing this. He has seen the athletes we will be facing come mid-June and it terrified him a bit. He has chosen speed over positioning. While not many of those guys will start, will this choice haunt the USMNT against Group G? It definitely could, but it’s clear Klinsmann didn’t want to go into Brazil without the athletes he needed to compete.
At the end of the day, we weren’t fully relying on any of the seven players cut from the final roster – not even Donovan was guaranteed a starting spot. We will go as far as Dempsey, Bradley, and Howard can take us. Sure, we have a young and inexperienced bench and are without the greatest American player ever. However, the brunt of our success (or non-success) will, of course, come from the starting XI. That mushroom cloud has to dissipate at some point.