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Landon Donovan steps into shadows for US Soccer

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There is an image of Landon Donovan that comes to mind. He was talking a bit about the dark times. You might know that the soccer career of Landon Donovan has been a particularly stark blend of shadow and light, brilliantly bright moments like his earth-shattering goal against Algeria in the World Cup four years ago and gray days when he was not even sure he wanted to keep playing.

The image comes from one of one of those colorless and bleak days when Donovan could not make sense of why he was even playing soccer. He has always been the most introspective of athletes, more artist than jock, and at various times in his life has wondered if this was what he was meant to do. He only started playing soccer because he was such a hyper child that his mother thought running around might tire him out. He scored seven goals in his first game, and the future was laid out.

Well, he was a natural. Donovan was faster than just about anybody — with or without the ball — had a special talent for finding open spaces and he would score more goals on the world stage than any American player ever. He would be a key player — maybe even the key player — in changing the way America viewed the world’s game.

Sometimes, though, he felt this lifelessness on the pitch, as if he had chosen the wrong path in life.

“I used to be on the field,” he said, “and think, ‘Maybe I’ll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud … and that will lift me up.”

Thursday, the U.S. World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Landon Donovan off his 23-man roster for the Rio. It was one of those singular sports moves that made absolutely perfect sense to some fans and absolutely no sense at all to others.  There was no middle ground.

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On the one hand, Donovan is 32 years old, has been off form lately and a year ago he took a soccer sabbatical that clearly left Klinsmann and others wondering about his motivation and commitment to the sport.

On the other, Donovan is the greatest goal-scorer in American history, was pretty fantastic on the U.S. Gold Cup team just one year ago and, in the words of the London Daily Mail “has more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney combined.” Also the sabbatical clearly energized him.

On one hand, the U.S. is stuck in what people are calling the World Cup group of death — with Ghana, Portugal and Germany — and so are unlikely to advance anyway. Klinsmann seems to believe this is the right time, the perfect time, to break from America’s wobbly soccer past — a past Donovan represents. Klinsmann also might very be looking to make the statement that this is HIS team (with several German countrymen to prove it), and Donovan simply wasn’t his kind of player. He has not hidden his distaste for how the American media still celebrates him.*

*It would be tough to not see some personal animosity involved here after Klinsmann’s son Jonathan — a goalkeeper on the U.S. development team — wrote a mocking tweet to celebrate Donovan’s exit finished off with a blunt, “HAHA.” Jonathan deleted the Tweet and gave one of those pseudo “my sincerest apologies to anyone who was offended” apologies. But the point was not lost.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other hand, Donovan was in position to play in his fourth World Cup — putting him in that stratosphere with Pele and Diego Maradona — and he’s the most famous soccer player in the United States, and several of his teammates have been very vocal in their opinion that he belonged on the team. Bruce Arena, the 2006 national team coach and Dovovan’s coach now for the LA Galaxy, was blunt to the San Jose paper one day before the decision: “If there are 23 players better than Landon,” he said, “then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”

When Klinsmann cut Donovan, he made one of those rare decisions that people RABIDLY agree or disagree with — to the point of not even understanding the other side — which made it a perfect Twitter moment. And Twitter, predictably, exploded with soccer fans alternately hammering Klinsmann, defending him and yelling, “You just don’t know anything about soccer” at each other (as soccer fans are inclined to do).

The most fascinating part of this whole story, to me at least, is Donovan himself. He saw this coming, or at least the possibility of it coming, even when others did not. Just two days before the decision he talked about how making the team was no sure thing; he could sense Klinsmann’s wariness. Still, thinking you might get cut and actually getting cut are two different things. There is no doubt that Donovan was crushed by the choice; he did briefly mention his disappointment in a classy thank you note he wrote to fans on his Facebook page.

But, knowing Donovan a little bit, I know his feelings go much deeper than simple disappointment or anger or sadness. Frank Sinatra used to say that a big reason that his singing so deeply touched people was that he had “an acute capacity for sadness and elation.” That’s Donovan too.

At his athletic best, he was a little bit faster, a little bit bolder, a little bit more driven. If you look at his U.S. National team 57 goals, by far a record, what you often see is a young man blazing on the counterattack, sprinting past defenders who look as stationary as trees on the highway, pulling away and putting away the goal and then taking off his shirt and going to his knees to soak in the cheers. That’s Donovan at his boldest and, perhaps, his happiest.

The other times, when he was listening for music or searching for a memory to inspire him, the game was more than just challenging. He developed a reputation among some as soft, but that was never the right word. He was more like a great novelist with writer’s block. His breathtaking sprints would not yield chances. His uncanny sense of anticipation would feel blocked. He would start to think too much. Donovan admits that there are always a million thoughts buzzing around in his head, many of them about what he should be doing with his life. It’s no more surprising that he took a sabbatical from soccer than it is that he came back afterward. Unlike so many great athletes who know one destiny, Donovan was often conflicted.

And I imagine he’s conflicted now — hurt, no doubt, angry perhaps, but also contemplative. He has spent a lot of time considering his talent, his career, his life and what comes after. He has played such a big role in the how our country now consumes soccer, such a big role in making the world sport just a little bit more American. He says he wants to continue doing that; it will be interesting to see what’s next for him.

As for the team, it’s all speculation and the opinions are all over the map, but I’m guessing this would have been a better team with Landon Donovan on it. His form may be off, he may be a step slower, and he might not fit Klinsmann’s vision for this team. But he’s still the most accomplished player in the country, the best-known player in the country, he’s still capable of raising his level, and he has developed as a leader and a teammate.

Klinsmann has a plan, and as coach he should follow that plan, sentimentality aside. Still, when playing in the group of death, Klinsmann might just find that he is short a player who can score goals when he hears the music.

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WATCH: Neymar caught a bit offguard in first look at his wax figure

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 22:  Neymar of FC Barcelona celebrates aftr scoring Barcelona's 2nd goal during the Copa del Rey Final between Barcelona and Sevilla at Vicente Calderon Stadium    on May 22, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images
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I remember the first time I saw the first of many life size wax replications of my body.

That is a sentence I am unlikely to ever utter, but Neymar is a different story.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

The 24-year-old Brazilian superstar was caught on camera witnessing his wax figure for the first time, and we can watch it thanks to FC Barcelona.

Look at this guy, looking at that guy. The most interesting part for me is his fascination with how well they did with his tattoos, which of course are easier to duplicate than, you know, a face:

Morris “completely respects” Klinsmann’s keeping him off USMNT roster

SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 20:  Seattle Sounders FC forward Jordan Morris speaks on stage during We Day at KeyArena on April 20, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day)
Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images for We Day
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Seattle Sounders striker and USMNT star-in-waiting Jordan Morris struck a mature note when asked about his exclusion from Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster for this summer’s Copa America Centenario.

Some will have considered the youngster a lock for the roster, with Morris already boasting rarefied air as a college player to become something close to a national team regular while still in school.

[ MORE: USMNT-Ecuador preview | Klinsmann eyes semis ]

But Klinsmann opted for in-form San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski, and it has become old hat for MLS players to gripe when their name is not called by the German boss (See: Benny Feilhaber, Brad Evans and Landon Donovan).

Don’t count Morris in that group. Of course the youngster doesn’t have the tenure to rally against the man who gave him his shot in the first place, but that hasn’t stopped others from acting entitled to a roster spot.

From MLSSoccer.com:

“[Klinsmann] told me not take it too hard and that there was a lot of competition,” Morris said. “I completely respect his decision. There were a lot of good forwards playing and they’re all playing really well. I wish those guys all the best. It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this summer.”

Morris can still end up on the roster through injury, and it’s easy to see him as the next name up should an attack-minded player take a knock. Stefan Frei told us last week that Morris is remarkably professional, and this is no exception.

The youngster did admit increased motivation from his omission, stating that “it gives you fuel to your fire to try and get back in the mix a little bit”. We have a feeling he won’t be out of that mix for long.

Copa America announces “clear bag policy” for security purposes

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Fans go through security lines outside University of Phoenix Stadium before the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game between the Clemson Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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The European Championship is not the only tournament with heightened security concerns this summer.

[ MORE: Klinsmann eyes Copa America semis ]

The Copa America Centenario will have a “clear bag policy” at the gates of its 10 American stadia, and is recommending that fans don’t bring any bags at all.

From a press release:

Bags that are not in compliance must be returned to the patron’s vehicle or checked at a designated bag check area located outside the stadium perimeter (if available).

The style and size of bags that will be allowed is described below:

  • Bags that are clear plastic, vinyl or PVC and do not exceed 12″ x 6″ x 12.”
  • One-gallon clear plastic freezer bag (Ziploc bag or similar).
  • Small clutch bags, approximately the size of a hand, with or without a handle or strap, may be carried into the stadium along with one of the clear bag options.

USMNT-Ecuador preview: Lineup will give clues to Klinsmann’s intent

TAMPA, FL - MARCH 25:  Clint Dempsey #2 of the United States slides past Segundo Castillo #14 of Ecuador in an international freindly match at the Raymond James Stadium on March 25, 2007 in Tampa, Florida. USA defeated Equador 3-1. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
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Wednesday’s friendly could be a Copa America quarterfinal preview, as Ecuador and the United States tangle in Texas.

The Yanks’ goal of a deep tournament run could go through La Tricolor if one wins its group while the other finishes second. That would require either the U.S. topping Colombia or Ecuador finding a way over Brazil.

[ MORE: Klinsmann eyes Copa America semis ]

The two sides last met in Oct. 2014, with Mix Diskerud and Enner Valencia trading goals in New Jersey. The U.S. and Ecuador have an even 2-2-2 record all-time.

Ecuador has wins over Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay in the last year, but went winless in a pair of World Cup qualifiers in March.

Espanyol striker Felipe Caicedo has been the side’s most dangerous attacker in recent action, scoring in four of six, while West Ham’s Enner Valencia join Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia and Swansea City’s Jefferson Montero as pivotal members of the attack. FC Dallas midfielder Carlos Gruezo is also on the roster.

La Tricolor has four defenders in camp with 36 or more caps, including Walter Ayovi (111). The Monterrey back will become the second most capped Ecuadorian with his next appearance for the national team.

[ MORE: Eyeing the USMNT’s friendlies ]

As for the United States, there are a number of directions Klinsmann can go to test his Best XI ahead of June’s tournament. And he’s not exactly tipping his hand, but did mention players in a Q&A with the US Soccer web site:

“We are excited about John Brooks proving now that he matured, that be became stronger. Christian Pulisic is coming through the Dortmund system in a Champions League team and breaking through, so we want him to confirm that and we give him all the help to do that. Darlington Nagbe, who became part of the National Team after waiting so many years for that opportunity. Bobby Wood, who broke out last year. DeAndre Yedlin who became a consistent starter in the Premier League, and so on and so on.”

Many eyes will be on Wood, who showed that rare quality of an American striker in form for both club and country with a strong performance against Puerto Rico. He’s the sort of player who could shake up Klinsmann’s plans in both selection and formation.

COLUMBUS, OH - MARCH 29: Clint Dempsey #8 of the United States Men's National Team celebrates his first half goal against Guatemala with Steve Birnbaum #21 of the United States Men's National Team during the FIFA 2018 World Cup qualifier on March 29, 2016 at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Will Matt Besler or Steve Birnbaum get a look alongside John Brooks, as Geoff Cameron is widely considered to be the best center back in the bunch? Cameron/Brooks seems predestined given their seasons abroad.

Is Clint Dempsey seen as a difference maker for Klinsmann, especially now that Jozy Altidore is out, or will he truly have to compete for his place? The 33-year-old Texan rang up 9 goals for the U.S. last year, but has just two goals in 10 MLS matches for the struggling Sounders.

And how far advanced with Michael Bradley be? Jermaine Jones? Honestly, we’re nearly as excited for the lineup card as the match itself.

Those are answers we may get in the next two friendlies, before the real arrows start flying in the Copa America opener against Colombia on June 3. All we’ll say for Wednesday is our expectations are not a clean sheet for either side.