Donovan’s Absence Provides a Necessary Wakeup Call for USA Men’s Soccer Team
When Jürgen Klinsmann signed on to become the new head coach of the United States men’s soccer team, there was cause for celebration in the USA camp. Internationally recognized as a player and as a coach, Klinsmann brings a wealth of experience to the American side.
Asked how he intends to take the men’s team to the next level, Klinsmann has repeatedly explained that the team must acquire a style which is unique to the cultural identity of the United States. Klinsmann has advocated an attack-minded style of play in which the team consistently creates pressure in the final third, similar to the German national team.
Fast-forward to 6 February 2013. Klinsmann played extremely coy regarding his desired lineup and formation in the days leading up to the team’s first CONCACAF World Cup qualifier of the current campaign versus Honduras. For those fans expecting change, Klinsmann delivered it in the form of an incredibly bold 4-3-3 formation. Released just prior to kickoff, the formation signaled the Americans' intent to leave Honduras with three points toward qualification. Unfortunately, the tactical change failed to prevent a one-goal defeat.
Perhaps the only aspect of the 2-1 loss to Honduras that stings more than the USA’s inability to come away with any points is the overall lack of progress demonstrated by the Americans at this stage of Klinsmann’s tenure. Defensive lapses and a lack of creativity when advancing the team’s position on the pitch -- unfortunate hallmarks of the national team -- left the side reeling. If not for Tim Howard’s steady goaltending, Clint Dempsey’s clinical finish, and Michael Bradley’s nonstop motor, the game might not have even been close.
Noticeably absent from the qualifier versus Honduras was Landon Donovan. Sometimes viewed as a polarizing figure in American soccer despite holding the title of all-time leading goal scorer for the men’s team, the national side’s underperformance in the first match of the Hexagonal underscored just how vital Donovan’s influence has been over the course of his international career.
While not known as an exceptionally vocal leader, Donovan led the USA by example. His pace, vision, finishing, free kicks, and bending corners are noticeably absent as he takes a personal hiatus from the game. One would be hard-pressed to fault him, as Donovan has amassed an astonishing 144 caps and 49 goals at the mere age of 30 for taking some time away from the international scene to rest. However, onlookers are beginning to speculate that Donovan’s play may have overshadowed some of the USA’s inconsistencies over the years.
The issue arises whether Klinsmann’s edition of the national team can find the winning formula in time to qualify for Brazil 2014. Luring players with dual citizenship such as Timmy Chandler, Fabian Johnson, and Jermaine Jones into the fold has yet to yield the tangible results for which Uncle Sam’s Army had desperately hoped.
If poor defensive shape is not enough of an issue, the predicament at striker is not much better as of late. Without Donovan, increased pressure is placed on Dempsey to provide a bit of creative genius. Questions abound whether Jozy Altidore can carry his form from AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eredivisie over to the national team.
Barring a sudden comeback by Donovan, the USA men’s team must be prepared to move on without the most decorated player in its history. The next test arrives on 22 March at 8pm GMT, when the USA battles Costa Rica. Whether Klinsmann seeks to maintain an attack-style formation on home soil will be a major theme leading up to the second round of Hexagonal play. With qualification for the World Cup on the line, Klinsmann knows that there is little room for error.