Landon Donovan is the best soccer player in United States history. This fact is unassailable.
He is the men's national team's all-time leader in goals (57, 20 ahead of second-place Clint Dempsey), assists (58), World Cup games (12) and World Cup goals (five). (He actually has more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney combined.) No one else is particularly close to Donovan. When you think of U.S. soccer, you think of Landon Donovan.
This is why, nearly two weeks after USMNT coach Jürgen Klinsmann cut him from the team's World Cup roster, Donovan remains at the center of every American World Cup conversation. The United States plays an ugly 2-0 friendly against a dull, defensively squatting Azerbaijan team? They miss Donovan. The U.S. has an exciting, if flawed, 2-1 win over a tougher Turkey team? How is this team going to handle the discord of losing Donovan? Even the players who made the team -- who have achieved the lifelong dream of playing in a World Cup -- are filtered through the Donovan lens. How can Julian Green be here when Donovan isn't? Brad Davis? DeAndre Yedlin? The United States' first game is in less than a fortnight, and we're still talking more about a person who won't be there than the 23 who will.
This has been rather universal. The casual fan, the one who only knows Donovan and maybe Dempsey and Tim Howard, is, of course, going to obsess over Donovan. But those inside the game, the most avid supporters and expert observers, can't let it go, either. On Howler Magazine's DUMMY podcast last week, Brian Dunseth, captain of the 2000 U.S. Olympic soccer team (which featured Donovan), blasted Klinsmann for his decision and argued the notorious Brian Straus' story from March 2013 -- in which anonymous USMNT members hammered Klinsmann and implied he was about to lose the team, right before it went on a tear toward qualifying -- was the real truth all along, and Klinsmann didn't understand how American soccer culture was supposed to work. Across the board, the new generation of young soccer analysts -- people from sites like Howler, American Soccer Now and World Soccer Talk -- has lined up in favor of Donovan against Klinsmann. The excitement the U.S. soccer team had been building for the past few months? It was all tossed aside with the Donovan decision. If the U.S. doesn't advance from the Group of Death now, it won't be seen as a temporary setback en route to greater soccer glory; it'll be seen as Klinsmann's just desserts.
These are strong arguments for Klinsmann making a PR mistake by not including the 32-year-old Donovan, but Klinsmann is not a public relations guru. He is a soccer coach. Even more so: He's also the technical director of U.S. Soccer, which means he's not only in charge of this year's World Cup team, he's charged with changing the whole structure of American soccer. (This is another reason his contract was extended through the next World Cup cycle; we're looking farther ahead than just this World Cup.) He has made large strides on this front, from re-organizing how the youth league teams are structured to convincing some future international stars with American ties (like Green) to play for the U.S. rather than other countries' squads. Klinsmann, a man who has won a World Cup as a player and finished third as a coach, is trying to shake up American soccer culture. He's trying to make us do it the way winning countries do.
There is no better way to shake up American soccer culture than by cutting Landon Donovan, the very representation of American soccer culture. (That Donovan has been slow in training, reportedly out of shape and didn't have a logical position in Klinsmann's formation obviously didn't hurt.) It's clear Klinsmann never got over Donovan's "sabbatical" last summer. Klinsmann's reaction to Donovan's break was to assume he didn't have the desire to be the best as Klinsmann demands from his players … that every country demands from its greatest players.
It's very American to reach the mountaintop and then reflect before returning to battle: After all, Michael Jordan did it, and Michael Jordan basically wrote the script for what we expect of star athlete narratives for all time. Thus, we all invested in the notion of Donovan coming back, victorious. Klinsmann looked at Donovan and said, rightly: "You're no Michael Jordan, pal."
How would you react if, say, the Orlando Magic's Nikola Vucevic, or the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, took a few months off in the middle of the season to clear his head? You'd think they were ridiculous, right? Globally, that's where Donovan was, no matter what we think of him in America: A good player, a solid player … but seriously, come on, you're taking a sabbatical, like you're Jordan? Who do you think you are? This is almost certainly how Klinsmann saw it because he's not of the American soccer culture. He knows we have to do better. We have to think bigger.
What's strange about the response to Klinsmann's move, though, is this American assumption that the way we've been doing things is fine, that Klinsmann somehow doesn't get it, man. You saw this prominently in Dunseth's interview. He went on about how the guys from his generation, the ones Donovan's age and older, just couldn't believe Klinsmann would leave Donovan off. "It's like he doesn't appreciate what the old guard has done," Dunseth said.
Well, that's because they haven't done anything. The United States finished in the quarterfinals in 2002 -- when Donovan had about a million less miles on his legs -- didn't make it out of the Group Stage in 2006 and barely sneaked out in 2010. (The U.S. actually had a dream draw in 2010, one it essentially wasted, so no one should shed too many tears over drawing the Group of Death this year.) The U.S. finished last in 1998, 14th at its own tournament in 1994 and was stuck in the group stage in 1990. Before that: We hadn't made the World Cup at all since 1950. On the all-time FIFA World Cup rankings, we are 25th, below Denmark and Romania. Americans act like we are some sort of power -- as if we have some sort of authority -- in soccer because we act like we are some sort of power in everything. We're not. We stink. We are a reclamation project. I'm not sure what amazing accomplishments Dunseth and company are claiming. Landon Donovan is the best American soccer player of all time. But he's not in the top 100 -- maybe not top 200 -- worldwide all time. This is precisely what Klinsmann is trying to change.
Landon Donovan isn't, say, Derek Jeter: He doesn't have five championships worth of goodwill to earn him automatic insertion into the starting lineup even when Brendan Ryan's a better shortstop. You can argue the Yankees shouldn't be starting Jeter, but you can't argue Jeter hasn't garnered himself a little leeway. (Jeter's also fourth among American League shortstops in on-base percentage, by the way.) Donovan is the greatest American soccer player the same way Jeff Conine is the greatest Miami Marlin. You can respect that. But nobody thinks Jeff Conine is a Hall of Famer and you don't put Conine in leftfield in 2014.
Americans don't like outsiders coming in and telling us what we need to be doing. But, when it comes to putting together a global soccer power -- using the massive resources we as a nation have at our disposal -- we don't know what we're doing. We have decades upon decades of evidence. For the first time, someone who has proven his ability to succeed on a level Americans have never even imagined has been brought in to point us in the right direction. We are responding by carping and complaining; hanging onto a past that isn't nearly as great as we pretend it was. (How cute must it seem in Germany and Argentina that we got so excited about a goal to take the lead against freaking Algeria?) The old guard thinks Klinsmann doesn't understand us, and we're all too blinded by our affection for Donovan to see not only is he past his prime, he wasn't the superstar we all imagined in the first place. It's no wonder Klinsmann wanted that contract extension. To fix a problem, you have to shut out the noise.
So, the U.S. soccer team -- which, by the way, has exciting players and an attacking style that's more fun to watch than any U.S. team of recent vintage -- soldiers on, with one more friendly this weekend before boarding a plane for Brazil next week. Every pregame show is going to mention Donovan. Every broadcast will feature him prominently. He'll remain at the center of the conversation. Klinsmann's job is to dull that, to change the subject. But it's our job to keep in mind Landon Donovan is not Michael Jordan, the United States is not the United States in soccer, and if we're going to get where we need to go, we need to let go of the past.
It wasn't all that great anyway. Let's please move on.