Dropping Donovan a Mistake

Landon Donovan was controversially left off the U.S. roster on Thursday. (Photo: Kari Heistad/capturedimages.biz)

Landon Donovan was controversially left off the U.S. roster on Thursday. (Photo: Kari Heistad/capturedimages.biz)

He’s done nothing since the Gold Cup. He’s out of form. Past performances don’t matter.

All succinct justifications of varying truth bandied about by pundits and fans alike for keeping Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster. The problem is none of them can justify Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to leave Donovan at home over the likes of Brad Davis, Alejandro Bedoya, and Julian Green.

It’s easy for some to write off the fact that Donovan led the U.S. in both goals and assists with eight each last year in just 10 games. Many have argued he boosted his stats against inferior Gold Cup opposition.

What has he done since?

September 10, 2013, seems to have already been forgotten for some. The day the U.S. clinched their spot in the World Cup with a 2-0 win over Mexico in Columbus it was Donovan who set up the first goal and scored the second. Donovan followed that up with a somewhat invisible 45 minutes against Jamaica, then didn’t play again for the U.S. in 2013.

So what was he doing in MLS in that time? Post Gold Cup, Donovan scored seven goals and added three assists in 11 games, bringing his totals to an impressive 10 goals and nine assists in 22 MLS games for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2013. Donovan didn’t disappear after the Gold Cup in 2013, outside of one subpar game for the U.S., he was great.

But 2014 didn’t get off to the ideal start for Donovan. The Galaxy got off to a slow start and Donovan along with them. Tied for the all-time lead in MLS goals going into the season with 134, Donovan still hasn’t found the back of the net to take sole possession of the lead. Through seven games, Donovan is scoreless and has just two assists. Yet even in a down start to the season, Donovan is still among the lead leaders in many categories.

A breakdown comparison of how some of Donovan’s key starts in his “slow start” compare to those who made the World Cup roster is below. Julian Green’s detailed stats are unavailable since he’s been playing for Bayern Munich’s reserve team in fourth division German soccer, but the 18-year-old hasn’t scored since October and his giveaway after coming on as a sub vs. Mexico for his lone U.S. appearance led to Mexico’s equalizer.

Donovan’s decline? Some stats suggest his “slow start” isn’t all that bad.

Donovan has yet to score a goal in MLS in 2014 after scoring 10 in 2013.

Donovan has yet to score a goal in MLS in 2014 after scoring 10 in 2013.

Despite the lack of goals, Donovan ranks 11th in MLS among midfielders in shots per 90 minutes.

Despite the lack of goals, Donovan ranks 11th in MLS among midfielders in shots per 90 minutes.

Bedoya recorded 0 assists in 31 games this past season. (Totals here do not include secondary assists)

Bedoya recorded 0 assists in 31 games this past season. (Totals here do not include secondary assists)

While his assist and goal totals are down, Donovan's chances created are still in line with his peers.

While his assist and goal totals are down, Donovan’s chances created are still in line with his peers.

Donovan is tied for the 22nd best passing accuracy in MLS this season.

Donovan completes more passes per game than the wingers going to Brazil and ranks 46th in MLS in passes completed per 90 minutes.

Donovan completes more passes per game than the wingers going to Brazil and ranks 46th in MLS in passes completed per 90 minutes.

Donovan also ranks above his peers in forward passes per 90 minutes.

Donovan ranks 43rd in MLS in successful take ons

Donovan greatly exceeds his midfield peers in successful take ons percentage.

Donovan greatly exceeds his midfield peers in successful take ons percentage.

 

Meanwhile, in 2014, Donovan played twice for the U.S., playing a key role in the first goal and assisting the second against South Korea in February and then having little impact off the bench in 30 minutes of a 2-2 draw with Mexico. Perhaps not the impact one would expect of arguably the best player in U.S. history, but helping to create both goals in the only victory for the U.S. thus far in 2014 hardly qualifies as “nothing”.

And let’s not discount the experience Donovan brings to the table. On a young squad, Donovan could’ve added the valuable experience of playing in three World Cups and his five World Cup goals are more than the rest of the squad combined (and more than the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Wayne Rooney combined). While Donovan has been a huge part of the U.S. for years, the likes of Davis, Bedoya and Green have never held down a regular place in the side heading into the World Cup.

So what was it that kept Donovan off the roster? Perhaps, as Klinsmann said, the other players they took were in fact “a little step ahead of Landon in certain areas” and that may have become apparent to the coach in the first week of training camp. But Klinsmann could’ve waited till after the Azerbaijan friendly on Tuesday to really figure that out in a true game scenario rather than just a week of training.

Or maybe it was something else. Some have speculated it’s personal and goes back to the days Donovan was on loan Bayern Munich while Klinsmann was the coach.

 

His son’s tweet shortly after the decision did little to dispel this line of speculation. 

 

 

And while Donovan is still on standby if someone gets injured, it’s hard to see him getting the call.

 

 

But regardless of the reason, it’s difficult to understand how the U.S. will be better off without Donovan in Brazil.

 

Hear former MLS coach and current beIN Sport commentator Ray Hudson’s comments on the decision here:

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About Sean Donahue

Sean Donahue has been covering the New England Revolution since 2002 for various publications. He has covered four MLS Cups, in addition to covering various international matches, including World Cup Qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. He has done freelance work for the AP and ESPN Boston. Sean hosted Revolution Recap, a weekly radio program covering the New England Revolution and U.S. Men's National Team from 2005-2008. He is a member of the North American Soccer Reporters. Sean can be reached at nesoccertoday@gmail.com or followed on twitter @SeanLDonahue