By IVES GALARCEP
When the U.S. Men’s National Team takes the field at Estadio Azteca next month, they will be doing so without Landon Donovan in the starting lineup for the first time since 2001.
The 12 year span since the last time the U.S. didn’t have Donovan for a trip to Azteca might only consist of three matches, but there is something strange about the idea of the leading scorer in U.S. National Team history, and a player so synonymous with the USA-Mexico rivalry, won’t be there.
The reaction to Donovan’s decision to not return to soccer until late March was met with mixed reactions, and understandably so. For a large segment of LA Galaxy fans, at least the ones who aren’t overly passionate about the national team, the news was positive because it means Donovan does plan on coming back and trying to help the Galaxy three-peat as MLS Cup Champions.
For U.S. national team fans, however, the feeling immediately turned to March 26th, and the idea that one of the best teams in the U.S. national team pool will miss an Azteca qualifier because he needs a break.
As you might imagine, there are some pretty angry USMNT fans right now who have lost any sense of patience with Donovan, and as unfortunate as that may be, that doesn’t matter nearly as much as how the U.S. team will account for his absence in the March qualifiers.
As we have noted before, playing without Donovan isn’t exactly a new experience for the national team. He has missed 14 of the team’s past 20 matches, so you would think Jurgen Klinsmann would have had enough opportunities to adjust and deal with Donovan’s absence.
The only problem is there just aren’t many players who provide what Donovan can. Aside from the experience in big U.S. Men’s National Team matches, which only Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley can truly say they have in abundance as U.S. midfielders, Donovan also brings speed, movement and intelligence to the attack.
Klinsmann has auditioned a myriad of candidates trying to catch lightning in a bottle, and nobody has really emerged as a must-start wing option, particularly on the left. Not Graham Zusi or Josh Gatt, or even Eddie Johnson, who has been deployed in a wide role with some moderate success against lesser competition.
Brek Shea could wind up being an option once he is healthy and playing for Stoke City, but it is still not a sure bet that he is ready for the March qualifiers. If Shea can return to action soon, and earn playing time at Stoke, then having him start in the March qualifiers is a strong possibility.
However, if Shea can’t make it back, Klinsmann will have to at least consider the possibility of playing Fabian Johnson on the left wing. Against a team lost Costa Rica, with speed on the flanks, Klinsmann can’t get away with playing Eddie Johnson wide and asking him to handle the defensive responsibilities that come with playing there. Stacking Johnson on the left flank, in front of Michael Parkhurst, who could see regular starts for Augsburg now, or Edgar Castillo, might make the most sense. He could also stack Johnson with Chandler on the left, and have Parkhurst start at right back.
There are other possibilities, such as Brad Davis or Danny Williams or even Michael Bradley on the flanks, and Klinsmann must also consider whether to go with a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, but there is no denying that Donovan’s absence will make Klinsmann’s decisions that much more difficult.
What will this decision mean for Donovan going beyond March? You can’t help but wonder how Klinsmann will take this decision. Does he ignore Donovan when June rolls around, or does he chalk it all up to Donovan being burned out and needing a rest?
There is no reason to think Donovan won’t be open to a national team return, but could Klinsmann be tempted to turn the page on Donovan’s national team career in favor of giving younger options the opportunity to impress? That might sound far-fetched, but Klinsmann has already shown that he isn’t afraid to try things that might seem risky, like not calling in Jozy Altidore for October qualifying and starting the inexperienced Omar Gonzalez over captain Carlos Bocanegra in Honduras.
Ultimately, unless several players step their game up, Klinsmann doesn’t seem likely to have the luxury of leaving Donovan home or buried on the bench if he returns from his sabbatical with the fire and desire to be a top player again. If Donovan hits the ground running in MLS, and lets it be known he wants back on the national team, Klinsmann will have little choice but to make room for him.
And how will the team receive him? Don’t expect things to change all that much. The national team locker room isn’t about to turn on him for this latest disappearance. Might he be losing some respect among his peers, especially younger players who haven’t been through qualifying and World Cups with Donovan? Sure, that is possible, but you also still have a nucleus of veterans who are no strangers to how Donovan is, and who will accept him back in the fold because he makes the team better.
Ultimately that is all that matters, so if and when Donovan is ready to return to the national team, there will still be a place for him. Teammates will still pass him the ball and the team will still be looking for him to be a leader.
Does that mean his absence from the March qualifiers doesn’t tarnish his reputation at least a little. It is safe to say it does, but it is also safe to say that if he’s back in a U.S. national team uniform in June, and plays well and helps the Americans win key qualifiers, nobody will be talking about the games he missed in March for very long.