STANFORD, Calif. – The post-Landon Donovan era began for American soccer on Friday, earlier than anyone realistically expected, and amid all the hype and conjecture and social media frenzy there was only one question that really mattered.
What happens now?
It is an understandable query considering how much the United States national team has depended on Donovan for over a decade and how much his profile has overshadowed that of any other American player. But head coach Jurgen Klinsmann believes he has an answer, a plan and a tactical philosophy that means the United States will be better without the 32-year-old forward.
Here are the key issues that hold the fate of the U.S. this summer as it heads to Brazil without its best-known and most experienced player.
Who plays now?
Klinsmann was grilled over his selection process during his press conference on Friday morning but didn't give too much away like you would expect. The ongoing pre-World Cup training camp here in the Bay Area has been intense and secretive, with both the result and lineups for behind-closed-doors scrimmages against the Stanford University men's team and the Los Angeles Galaxy reserves not released.
However, by his actions and selections, it is now possible to see with a greater degree of certainty what Klinsmann's team might look like when it faces Ghana on June 16 and what attributes he values highest.
Had he made the roster, Donovan would most likely have played on the left side of midfield. He is not, however, a natural winger and his omission suggests that Klinsmann is determined to play with as much width as possible. A player such as Germany-based Fabian Johnson offers the ability to whip in crosses from that flank, as opposed to Donovan, who would seek to make darting runs inside.
Such an approach may reap rewards against Portugal, which has a sturdy and strong defensive line but is most susceptible to be attacked from the angles.
How do they play?
Klinsmann's decision to pick a young squad with limited World Cup experience – only five of the final 23 have played in the tournament – has led some to suggest that he may be tanking this year's event in order to get a better shot at success in four years' time.
However, the emphasis on youth starts to make more sense if his primary plan is to outwork opponents with strength and fitness. In 2006, Klinsmann's Germany team was the most athletic in the tournament and made up for having less natural quality than some of its predecessors by adopting a style of pace and endurance that kept opponents under constant pressure.
It is a risk, no question about it. Players like Chris Wondolowski, selected at forward, and DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old defender, have great enthusiasm and spring in their step, but they are unproven at international level, having played their entire careers in Major League Soccer.
Who is the new Donovan?
Even Donovan's fiercest detractors must acknowledge that he stepped up for the national team when it mattered most. For evidence, you need look no further back than the 2010 World Cup, where he spearheaded a recovery from two goals down against Slovenia, then was on hand to score the dramatic winner against Algeria.
Speculation about Donovan's 2014 role shifted to one where he could operate as a "super sub" off the bench late in games and running at tired defenders. With no direct replacement, the player who could now best fit that description might be the American-born, Icelandic-raised, Netherlands-based forward Aron Johannsson.
The 23-year-old has the requisite calm attitude and nifty turn of pace suited for such a reserve role. He is less creative than Donovan and will rely on good passing service from the likes of Michael Bradley and Dempsey, but he does provide a potential X-factor that Klinsmann will value.
Is the pressure on Klinsmann?
Klinsmann's demeanor on Friday suggests he does not doubt himself in the slightest and he will leave all the second-guessing to others. However, if things go awry in Brazil and the team is unable to get things going on the offensive end, the Donovan omission undoubtedly will be highlighted as the German's great folly.
Even though Klinsmann has an extended contract, one that will run through the 2018 World Cup cycle, such an outcome would be seen as a severe dent on his popularity and credibility. The flip side is that a strong World Cup – having made a choice that so many doubted – would make Klinsmann look like a genius.
For him, everything is on the line. Just as it should be perhaps heading into soccer's most testing cauldron.
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- Jurgen Klinsmann