It was supposed to be smooth sailing from here on out. Yeah, right.
Who knew there was a downside to qualifying early for the FIFA World Cup? That’s what US national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann must be asking himself with two relatively meaningless World Cup qualifiers on tap Friday and Tuesday.
The problem is that the MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy also know the games are meaningless, and they want Landon Donovan back in time for next Wednesday’s league match against Montreal, one that’s shaping up to be a big one in the race for the playoffs. LA still need points just to make the postseason.
But the decision is not a simple “does Klinsmann let Donovan go?” The situation actually poses the biggest test for Klinsmann since he managed the fallout of Brian Straus’ Sporting News article back in February. The Donovan tug-of-war will test Klinsmann’s leadership abilities, his diplomatic skills, his personnel management style and his standing as the leading figure in U.S. Soccer. All at the same time.
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Remember what Klinsmann told a gathering of reporters just a couple of weeks ago when asked about whether the scheduling of MLS matches during the October FIFA international window will impact his roster selections?
"It is absolutely no issue for us," Klinsmann said. "We see the busy schedule MLS is going through, but it makes no difference. This is World Cup qualifying. We want to end it on a very high note. We are going to call in the guys we believe in."
And he made sure there was no room for interpretation of his position after he announced a full-strength roster for the final two World Cup qualifying matches against Jamaica and Panama. "This is serious business," he proclaimed.
“You want to win every game, get the points, win the group and be No. 1 in CONCACAF,” he said. “We know that our game in Panama will have an influence on who will be the No. 4 team and play against New Zealand in the playoff. Is it Panama or Mexico? I don’t want to deal with that discussion. I want to go down to Panama to get three points, so we take a very strong group.”
If Klinsmann releases Donovan after Friday’s match at Sporting Park (6:30 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas), he would essentially be changing his stance. And like it or not, that impacts credibility.
With less than a year to his biggest showcase, can Klinsmann afford to take that hit? There will be few opportunities to stamp his authority on this USMNT between now and the time he unveils his World Cup roster. This is one of them.
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And what makes it all the more complicated is that the player in question is Landon Donovan – the star attacker who preferred to go on a soul-searching break rather than join the national teamers in the ditches of one of the lowest moments in recent USMNT history last February.
You’d think if there’s anyone who can’t afford any more time away from this team, it’s Donovan, whose commitment to the USMNT was called into question during his hiatus. Did his CONCACAF Gold Cup MVP performance and a goal against Mexico make everything right so fast?
But here's an even bigger issue: Donovan’s not the only MLS player on the roster. Why would the LA Galaxy get to have their star player back for a critical league matchup? How should the Sounders (Brad Evans and a now-injured Eddie Johnson) and Sporting Kansas City (Matt Besler and Graham Zusi) feel about Donovan potentially rejoining the Galaxy when they were forced to deal with big games without their big names?
These are the politics that Klinsmann has to navigate.
And it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the coach making the request in this case – and applying even more pressure by making his request public via the press – is LA's Bruce Arena, the former US national team manager who has previously sounded off on the new regime’s recruitment of soccer players outside the US system.
"Players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans," Arena said in an interview with ESPN The Magazine. "If they're all born in other countries, I don't think we can say we are making progress."
The title of US national team head coach typically brings with it a position of authority – Arena became a preeminent voice on the American game during his eight years in charge – and Klinsmann can also use this moment to show the American soccer establishment who's boss.
In the end, it’s the scheduling dilemma that continues to be the crux of the matter, and until MLS is in a position to clear out the schedule for FIFA dates, these issues will continue to exist. But in the meantime, this specific conflict has given rise to the most fascinating tug-of-war for a player that we’ve seen in the MLS era. The player, the politics and the personalities involved means there's plenty more at stake.
Klinsmann’s final decision, and the chain reaction that results, could ultimately prove more entertaining theater than the upcoming qualifiers themselves. And depending on how it ends, we could still be talking about this soap opera months from now.