The conflict – or perceived conflict – between U.S. men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann and midfielder Landon Donovan has been going on for the past two years, and it's time for it to stop.
For the good of the team.
Last month, Donovan, hat in hand if you will, told USA Today that he wanted back on the team following a hiatus where he contemplated retiring.
"I would absolutely love to be a part of the national team again going forward," Donovan said. "I am itching to represent my country again but I understand very clearly that some decisions I have made are going to make that a difficult task."
During a press conference Wednesday, Klinsmann refused to yield, making sure everyone knew he was still upset with Donovan's decision to leave the squad last fall and wasn't going to forgive so easily.
"There are a lot of questions," Klinsmann said. "Looking back now, over the last two years that we've been in charge of the program, there have been a lot of players who have joined the program and are making a big impact, showing that they are 1,000 percent committed to the cause and to the team and have placed themselves in a very strong position.
"There are players clearly ahead of Landon now."
Anyone who has watched the U.S. lately in World Cup qualifying knows this is a line of cow manure.
When the Americans lost to Honduras in the first game of the Hexagonal, Donovan's absence left a big hole in what was an unorganized midfield. They didn't have a player to distribute the ball to the forwards or establish any sort of respect in midfield. And even though the U.S. beat Costa Rica in the snow and played well in a draw against Mexico, there's no doubt offense – or lack thereof – is a major concern.
Klinsmann's side has managed just two goals in three matches, fewer than any team in the top four of the Hexagonal standings. That lack of scoring punch could become a factor as World Cup qualifying progresses and tiebreakers are broken by goal differential.
The bottom line is this: Klinsmann needs Donovan more than Donovan needs Klinsmann. Donovan has 144 caps and has led the U.S. in three World Cups. If he walked away today, many would consider him the best player to wear an American uniform. However, Klinsmann needs to show he was the right choice to coach the United States. That distinction remains up for debate.
Prior to the game against Costa Rica, the Sporting News published a scathing article about Klinsmann that quoted several, albeit anonymous, players. There has been a glaring disconnect between older and younger players and while Klinsmann is trying to market the younger, sexier brand of U.S. Soccer, the team is treading water. Even with the scoreless draw at Mexico last month, it'd be a stretch to say that this American team is better than the one Bob Bradley coached in the 2010 World Cup.
Because it isn't.
While no one faults Klinsmann for wanting to go with younger, fresher faces, he still needs veterans to keep some sort of stability on the field. Guys such as Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and, yes, Donovan, can be an asset to each of their respective position groups and provide the leadership that seems to be missing right now.
And while the U.S. currently sits third in the Hexagonal standings, a trip to Brazil is far from guaranteed with seven games remaining and the pool of teams playing better than anyone expected.
If Donovan truly gives the U.S. a chance to be a better team, then Klinsmann needs to put aside whatever hurt feelings he might have and open the door to the L.A. Galaxy star. Donovan isn't approaching this situation as a privileged athlete; he's humble and ready to work his way back into the fold. That alone should show his time off has helped his mind, which will only help his game.
Klinsmann said he has not spoken to Donovan since January, but did watch him score a goal in a 2-0 Galaxy win over Sporting K.C. last Saturday.
"The way I perform with L.A. will determine whether I get called back in," Donovan said. "Once I'm playing he'll evaluate me like any other player and I wouldn't want it any other way. It has to be my goal to do whatever I can so that it's impossible for them not to have me there and that's what I'm motivated to do."
In the end, this isn't about Klinsmann and Donovan and whatever head-butting they've done. This is about the U.S. men's national team – not only doing what's best to get the U.S. to the 2014 World Cup but to also make an impression when it finally gets there.
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- Landon Donovan