Eddie Johnson played his way out of Brazil. Brad Evans’ injuries and play certainly didn’t help his standing in the U.S.’s battle at right back. Their candidacies for Brazil 2014 may have been doomed by other factors, but after playing regular roles in World Cup qualifying, neither U.S. international did themselves any favors through the first two months of the Major League Soccer season.
Landon Donovan is in that group, too, but unlike Evans and Johnson, the U.S. icon didn’t have a litany of qualifying contributions to fall back on. Last month’s camp in Arizona as well as his play throughout the MLS season were even more important. While Donovan hasn’t been terrible for the Galaxy this season, he has played well below his standards, creating a World Cup candidacy that was more about legacy and potential than the form he carried into Palo Alto, Calif.
Tellingly, Donovan doesn’t see it that way. Speaking to the media for the first time since Thursday’s surprise announcement, the 32-year-old pointed to his “performances’ before the U.S.’s May camp as part of the reason he deserved a place in Brazil:
“Based on my performances leading up to camp, based on my preparation for the camp, based on my fitness, based on my workload, based on the way I trained and played in camp, I not only thought I was a part of the 23, I thought I was in contention to be starting. That’s why this has all been pretty disappointing.”
Donovan has every right to be disappointed. There’s a strong case to be made that, even amid a slow start to the season, he is one of the 23 best U.S. soccer players available. To act like his current play reflects that, however, trivializes the complexities of his candidacy.
If one of Donovan’s arguments to be included is “performances leading into camp,” what is he looking at? A season with the Galaxy that’s seen Stefan Ishizaki and Baggio Husidic play as well as one of the team’s Designated Players? Based on that alone, Klinsmann is more than justified in doubting whether Donovan would have an impact in Brazil.
If Donovan’s “preparation for the camp” was so strong, why didn’t we see that on the field in the weeks leading up to his arrival in Palo Alto? Perhaps that was just the fluke of a small sample, but the returns from the sample were no different from what we’ve seen from Donovan throughout the season. While he hasn’t been as bad as his more ardent detractors claim, Donovan never made the case for his indispensability in Brazil.
While talking to the press on Saturday, Donovan noted he’s traditionally very level-headed when evaluating his own performance, but his descriptions of his recent performances don’t reflect reality. Going into Palo Alto, he’d done nothing to move off the bubble that’d formed post-Mexico. If Donovan had a case for Brazil, it wasn’t on the strength of his MLS performances.
That he can’t recognize his own struggles hints at a huge dissonance – a difference between his perception of his candidacy and what we’ve seen over the last two months. Did the same view that saw his pre-camp performances as World Cup-caliber also overvalue his fitness? Donovan needed to show up to Northern California in better shape than he did in Arizona. How much really changed in the month between the April friendly and the May camp?
Potentially a lot, but Donovan may be suffering from the same biases that undermine every person’s ability to assess their own strengths. He’s created a standard that’s put a premium on something he’s capable of attaining: competitiveness in the May camp.
From Klinsmann’s point of view, that standard may have never existed. Talking about how well he performed in Palo Alto, Donovan implies outplaying teammates in one week’s worth of workouts should overshadow the information Klinsmann collected over the last three years. Clearly, it did not.
It’s reasonable for Klinsmann to side with all that information instead of one week’s worth. It’s also reasonable for Donovan to expect being named to the 30-man roster meant he time to improve his case. That, unfortunately, is the saddest part of this saga. There is no right or wrong, here. There’s only what could have been.
Klinsmann and Donovan are both intelligent men, particularly as it concerns soccer. Unfortunately, they could never get on the same page. After three years with Klinsmann as his coach, Donovan still didn’t know what it took to make the World Cup.