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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Landon Donovan’s Response to Coach Klinsmann

In a fitting riposte to being cut from the US national soccer team by Juergen Klinsmann, Landon Donovan demonstrated once again why he is the best US soccer player ever: He still has the ability to terrorize opponents by scoring goals. Sunday night he scored two goals and assisted on a third, bringing his MLS total to 158 and becoming the all-time MLS leader in goals. Last summer he broke the US national team record for both most goals and most assists.

Yet Klinsmann judged he wasn’t among the top-23 US players to go to Brazil for the World Cup. After cutting Donovan, Klinsmann said, “He has done an amazing job the last ten days he was here. He has done everything right.” So the decision must have been made before the camp began? 

In Donovan’s place, Klinsmann selected 18-year-old German-American Julian Green, who plays in the fourth league in Germany. He has made only one appearance for the US nationals, showing potential but clearly not ready for prime time. Perhaps by 2018 Brooks will be able to help the US team and by 2022 will be in his prime.  But who knows? Does anyone recall the hype around Freddy Adu being the future of US soccer?

For most US fans, the future is now. No one will be satisfied to wait until 2018 if the US gets knocked out early in Brazil.

So put yourself in Klinsmann’s shoes. It’s the second game of the World Cup in Manaus, Brazil, deep in rain forest where the temperature is 92 and the humidity is 96%. The pressure cooker of the World Cup far exceeds the challenges of the weather. Only five of your players have ever been to a World Cup before, and the first timers are very nervous.

After 60 minutes, your team is down 1-0 against mighty Portugal. You desperately need a goal to have any chance of advancing to the second round. Your players are tired and frustrated by being pushed back by Portugal’s unceasing attacks. Up front, Jozy Altidore has done nothing all night; Clint Dempsey is pulling back to deep midfield because he is so closely marked he hasn’t seen the ball; Michael Bradley is pinned in the defensive zone trying to mark Cristiano Ronaldo; and Donovan’s replacement, left midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, is exhausted trying to move up and down the flanks without success. You look at your bench. Who would you put in to give your team a much needed spark? Julian Green or Landon Donovan? The answer seems obvious.

The real reason Klinsmann cut Donovan isn’t about having the best 23 players on your team. Klinsmann needs to be the only person on the stage, to be the unchallenged king of US soccer. The problem with Donovan is that he is too highly respected by US players. (Have you heard the disappointed comments from goalkeeper Tim Howard and superstar Michael Bradley about Donovan being cut?) He is too popular with US fans who adore him. The media loves him. In fact, he is too honest with the media about where he stands, and how hard he is working to make the team.

The reality is that Klinsmann never forgave Donovan for his sabbatical in 2012. To Klinsmann, this showed that Landon wasn’t committed. Well, if you had devoted your life to soccer for 365 days per year for 25 years since you were five years old, if you had the pressure of carrying all the hopes for US soccer on your shoulders since you were 17 years old, and if you had literally saved the US from an early send off with your last minute miracle goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, wouldn’t you want a sabbatical? In fact, when Klinsmann finally gave Donovan a chance with the US team, he dominated the Gold Cup last summer, being named MVP, and scored the winning goal over Mexico that enabled the US to qualify for the World Cup.

Klinsmann is sending a clear message to all the wannabe soccer players of America: you must be 100% dedicated to soccer and have nothing else in your life. If you don’t make it, like 99.9% of the aspiring kids, well, sorry. It’s too late to graduate from high school. College is out of the question. But we are in need of some good ball boys, so you may want to apply there.

Are you interested? If so, you should ask Landon Donovan to share his wisdom.

If Klinsmann wants to do well in Brazil, he needs to find a way to get Donovan back on the team. He would be in my starting eleven, at left mid. Paired with Dempsey and Bradley, the US might have a chance to score some goals. After all, Donovan has scored more World Cup goals than Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney combined. That should carry more weight than an 18-year-old rookie.