After a disappointing 2002 season, and mere days before the start of the 2003 season, Bill Belichick shocked New England by cutting star safety and team captain Lawyer Milloy. A few days later, the Patriots lost 31-0 to the Buffalo Bills and their recently-signed safety, Lawyer Milloy. Fans were apoplectic. And after a 9-7 season, they wondered if the magic of 2001 was just that, and Belichick was indeed a lunatic. At the time, absolutely nobody agreed with Belichick's decision. You know the rest, though: The Patriots finished the following season on a 15-game winning streak, resulting in another Super Bowl.
On Thursday, U.S. Soccer and Jurgen Klinsmann had their own version of the Lawyer Milloy decision when the team announced its 23-man roster for the World Cup. Landon Donovan -- America's most important, most successful and most celebrated player -- was nowhere to be found. Instead, we will have Brad Davis, who isn't even the first Google hit for his own name.
At first glance, this doesn't make a lot of sense. Both Donovan and Davis are 32 years old. One of them is the greatest soccer player in American history; the other is the greatest soccer player in Houston Dynamo history. One scored perhaps the most famous goal in modern U.S. soccer history, the other...has never scored a goal for the U.S. men's team. Klinsmann, however, doesn't care about what anyone has done in the past. (Neither goal-scorer in last fall's Dos A Cero will be in Brazil.) Since his contract extends through the 2018 World Cup, he's concerned with the next four years.
Coaches and managers of every sport suffer from a perverse time preference. Because they understand the precariousness of their profession, they are more than willing to overvalue the present at the future's expense. However, this is not the situation in which Klinsmann finds himself; the USSF has given him the contractual vote of confidence, not tying his job to whether the U.S. makes it out of the group stage next month. Good thing, too, since the U.S. is pretty clearly the worst team in the group, Donovan or not. This obviously isn't to say Klinsmann should wave the white flag for 2014 -- but he's trying to win as he's trying to build, and sometimes those goals clash.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Landon Donovan is not the same Landon Donovan we have come to adore and respect. He is still a good player, but he is not the athletic, transcendent superstar he once was. Donovan was at his best from the 50th to 70th minute, where his crazy energy level would give him an advantage over most defenders. But at 32, he has truly lost a step, which was in full display against a weak Mexican side a few months ago when he came on as a sub. He was unable to beat defenders one-on-one and was noticeably slower off the ball. Four years ago, it would have been heresy to suggest that Donovan might not be the best man on the wing; but Graham Zusi, at 27 years old, is a better option today and in the future on the right side.
Lots of people seem to think Donovan could provide value coming off the bench, but he has not demonstrated this recently. Davis, on the other hand, is more naturally suited to this role, always playing within himself and understanding what he can and cannot do. Last October, he had two assists coming off the bench against Panama, setting up the game-tying and game-winning goals in an important qualifier. This is an admittedly flimsy argument, but I can't see a much stronger one for Donovan coming off the bench other than "he's Landon F***ing Donovan," which, I know, man, I know.
Regardless of what formation Klinsmann deploys, it's hard to argue for Donovan starting on the left. If Klinsmann plays a 4-2-3-1, Michael Bradley and either Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman will play the defensive mids, and Dempsey is sure to be the central mid with Altidore up top. Donovan is not at his best on the left, and this is where the tension with 2018 becomes apparent. Julian Green seems destined for that left attacking mid spot. Any other option is going to be only marginally better on paper with very little upside. The same logic holds if Klinsmann deploys a 4-4-2: Who starts on the left wing if not Green? Would it be worth the minor improvement, given Green is on the fast track to being a prominent focus of 2018?
Nobody wants to hear that the World Cup could be a great learning experience, since learning experiences typically exist to prepare for the World Cup. But if there's even the slightest chance that Julian Green or, say, DeAndre Yedlin look back on starting this summer as a formidable experience on their path to 2018, wouldn't it be worthwhile considering how little the U.S. would be sacrificing?
This isn't a minor point, either. Every time Klinsmann speaks, he mentions how much he values his players facing the best European competition. He has lamented the quality of play in MLS and CONCACAF, the US's qualifying region. Green has played only on the Bayern Munich reserve team, while Yedlin plays in MLS. Ghana, Portugal and Germany would be far and away the best competition either of them have faced thus far. They could be huge opportunities for them -- and for Klinsmann to learn more about them as players. The U.S. is not going to win the World Cup this year (sorry) or sniff the top eight (look into your heart, you know it's true). But 2018 looks ever-so-slightly brighter on that front.
This kind of long-term thinking is often antithetical to how fans approach sports. This was even more apparent during the first episode of ESPN's documentary series Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil, when Klinsmann spoke about how he is focused on not just the 2014 World Cup, but developing U.S. Soccer on all levels and in the decades to come. It's a perspective lacking the usual sentimentality, personal attachment and nostalgia.
Too many coaches and general managers lack the ability to prepare for the future. We see teams trade future draft picks at an astronomical discount rate, develop win-now mentalities at the expense of player development and abide by conventional wisdom out of fear that failed risks will be met with a pink slip -- all to the detriment of an organization's larger interests. The decision to leave Donovan off the plane may be unpopular, but unpopular decisions often reveal which coaches have the potential to be great ones.
In retrospect, Belichick releasing Milloy was standard operating procedure for an organization that values its veterans about as highly as most airlines value their customers. One of the most valuable personnel insights of the last decade is that veterans are overpaid relative to their production. We didn't know this in 2003, but Belichick did.
This isn't to say the Donovan decision is exactly like Milloy's release, or that Klinsmann definitely made the right call. It will be hard to ever know, since doing so would require juggling counterfactuals with hands made of omniscience. But there is a certain long-term logic to it, one that our affections for a bygone soccer era may obscure. We all want Landon Donovan to score a key goal in Brazil, but we also want Julian Green to dominate Russia 2018. We will never know to what extent these goals are incompatible, but it's perfectly reasonable to think one hinders the other. As Noah Davis wrote at Grantland a few days ago, a new era of U.S. Soccer was always going to be upon us. We just didn't have time to prepare, and sometimes that's the hardest part.