World Cup: Will there be USMNT life after Landon Donovan? Let's find out | Armchair Analyst
I wrote an article titled Will there be life after Landon? two-and-a-half years ago for this website. The gist was simple: Landon Donovan has been the best and most productive player in US national team history, the attacker who's defined an era and whose successes (and one failure) were inextricably intertwined with the successes and failures of the program of a whole.
The first appositive in any story about Donovan, for the time being, will be "former USMNT attacker." And after a while it will be "all-time USMNT hero."
This is all by way of saying that Jurgen Klinsmann took a hell of a risk on Thursday in cutting a guy who has 57 goals and 58 assists and, at 32 years old, presumably some quality miles left on his legs.
Let's start there:
Mining for midfield diamonds
I'm going to get this out of the way early: I am emotionally compromised by the omission of Landon Donovan. Borderline indignant. Anything I say about why he should be included (and I need to type this an all caps because I don't trust the weight of mere words: HE SHOULD BE INCLUDED!!!!) runs the risk sounding less than impartial.
— Pablo Maurer (@MLSist) May 22, 2014
So instead of ranting about why he should be there, I'm going to point out just a bit about why he probably didn't fit what Klinsmann has in mind for his US national team.
Plain and simple: Landon has no clear role in the 4-4-2 diamond. You're not going to play him at forward over either Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore, and if one of those guys gets hurt there are clearly other choices – pretty much everyone – in better goalscoring form. You're also not going to play him at the point of the diamond because he's not as tough on the ball as Michael Bradley. The point needs to be able to ride challenges and operate in traffic in way that Landon never has.
That leaves the shuttler position, the wide positions that tend to be owned by guys who are better in possession and defense than in attack. That is not a description that fits Donovan.
Could he play there? I think so – as Dominic Kinnear pointed out after the 2012 MLS Cup, Donovan has never gotten the credit he deserves as a possession player. He almost never gives the ball away in midfield, and as he showed two weeks ago in Portland he is still entirely capable of making deep, relentless tracking runs.
But 2012 was a long time ago, and even if it wasn't, Landon wouldn't be my first choice at that spot. And that's is the rub: Donovan has been a first-choice player for so long it is conceivable that his mere presence would have been a distraction instead of an asset. He could have been the 800-lb. gorilla in the room instead of the attacking catalyst off the bench, and maybe that was a bad trade by Klinsmann's reckoning.
I feel like I'm reaching here, so I'll just leave it at this: From where I sit, Donovan's omission makes the 4-4-2 diamond more likely, and I think that formation – with or without Donovan – is our best bet to stay compact defensively but still dangerous in attack. It forefronts the abilities of Bradley, who is the best player on the team, it gives Jermaine Jones (or Kyle Beckerman!) a more prescribed role, and it makes sure that Jozy isn't stranded on an island all by himself.
Landon doesn't fit that – not from the start, anyway. But damn, do I think we're going to regret not having him as an option off the bench.
Balancing does not mean symmetry
Donovan's wasn't the only blood in the water, as Clarence Goodson – who was instrumental in the Hexagonal – also got the Moe Greene treatment. His omission from the 23 signals strongly that Geoff Cameron is going to be used primarily as a center back in Brazil.
Klinsmann's words obviously say as much as well: "I’ve said that over three years, that I think his best position is center back." Rule No. 1 of good coaching is to play your best players in their best spots, and it's hard to argue that Cameron is not one of the two best central defenders on the roster right now.
Combining that with the fact that both Michael Parkhurst and Brad Evans got cut, however, and we start to see that Klinsmann is valuing speed on the overlap more than positional discipline at fullback. And that concerns me, because the US have looked vulnerable when both the left and right backs have shared the overlapping burden.
There's no better example than the Hexagonal opener at Honduras, a dispiriting 2-1 loss. The US started that one with Timmy Chandler on one side and Fabian Johnson on the other, and I'm guessing that's what we'll see a month from now against Ghana.
Here is the events map of the Honduras wingers from just the first half of that game:
Here's the return date four months later, which the US started with Evans (who didn't overlap) and Edgar Castillo (who did):
That second map is from the entire game, not just one half. And it's barren in comparison.
Now, obviously there are a whole host of factors that go into keeping any team or any one attacker under wraps. The US don't by definition have a better chance of stopping Cristiano Ronaldo if they have a stay-at-home right back to trot out there; system and chemistry play a much larger role.
But there is simply no precedent in US soccer history, or in US soccer under Klinsmann, for playing dual overlappers and expecting a positive outcome. Didn't happen under Bob Bradley, didn't happen under Bruce Arena, didn't happen under Steve Sampson or Bora Milutinovic, and it hasn't happened yet under Klinsmann himself.
This has me jumpy.
Jozy or bust
I simply don't think the US can play good soccer without a target forward. And by "target forward," I don't mean a hulking behemoth who can win everything in the air; I mean a guy who primarily stays central, occupies the central defense, holds the ball up and links passes to the other attackers. It is a physical job, but it is not a mindless job for immobile donkeys.
Altidore is the obvious choice for that role, and unless something goes horribly wrong, I'd expect him to start and play at ton of minutes. But what if he can't? What if he picks up an injury, or a red card, or oversleeps? What happens if Jozy can't be Jozy?
Then the US are going to be in trouble, because along with Donovan, Goodson, Parkhurst and Evans, Terrence Boyd also got the boot. Boyd, like Jozy, is a target forward who operates well with a man on his back. He's built to battle while opening up space for everyone else.
In Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johannsson, Klinsmann brought three other strikers who do their best work in that space. None of them, however, create it. Jozy better stay well, or it will be a short trip and a long denouement.
One last thing...
Sports fans live for moments like this:
Landon Donovan gave us more of those than anybody had a right to expect. Thursday's announcement was the end of an era, for him and for us, and that is always terrifying.
Now we're left with the question I asked way back in 2011: Will there be life after Landon?
I think so. But I'm just as certain that Landon will live forever.