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May 23, 2014

Klinsmann elects not to gamble on aging Donovan

In the end, the axe fell swiftly and ruthlessly to end the international career of the finest player ever to pull on an American shirt -- Landon Donovan.

Nobody, not even the player himself, would dispute that Donovan has not been the same galvanizing player who was ever-present and scored five crucial goals in the last three World Cups.

His decision to take a sabbatical from the game had raised questions over his motivation to continue a distinguished 14-year U.S. career, but his selection for Jurgen Klinsmann's enlarged squad of 30 suggested that he would surely be on the plane to Brazil when the final 23 was chosen.

Yet when the coach took everyone by surprise by Announcing the final roster earlier than expected, the name of America's most iconic player was missing.

This is a huge gamble by Klinsmann and a brave call, for he will surely face a big inquest if his team fail for want of the craft and nous that Donovan could potentially still offer from the bench.

Instead, the U.S. must hope the likes of Graham Zusi, Julian Green or perhaps the gifted yet largely untried Mix Diskerud can provide the creative spark that this team will need in a daunting group alongside Ghana, Germany and Portugal.

Klinsmann, while always respectful of Donovan's exceptional record, has always been doubtful of how much he would be able to offer in Brazil.

The writing was on the wall a long time ago, and when Donovan was omitted from the starting lineup for the recent friendly against Mexico because he "looked sluggish in training," according to the coach, we began to wonder about his chances.

- McIntyre: Klinsmann better know what he's doing

- Carlisle: Donovan's omission is a stunner

Klinsmann wanted the Donovan who could run at defences at speed, make things happen and score goals.

Clearly he decided that player no longer existed.

But the questions will linger. Was there a personality clash? Has the axe fallen too soon? Would Donovan have rediscovered his form given the exciting stage of the World Cup? Will there be moments in Brazil where fans will wonder what might have happened had Landon been there?

But coaches are paid to make big and bold calls, just as French coach Didier Deschamps has with Samir Nasri's exclusion, while Argentina's Alejandro Sabella has upset some fans by continuing to cold-shoulder Carlos Tevez despite his outstanding club form.

In a sense, those two calls are bigger because they involve players in top form, while Donovan can make no such claims.

At the forefront of Klinsmann's thinking in his selection is the fitness level and recovery-rate stats of every player in his squad.

The schedule of travel and games in exhausting conditions, particularly against Portugal in the jungle city of Manaus, means that only players likely to cope can be called in.

Again, that might have been another area where the coach had his concerns about the 2014 version of the all-time record scorer for the USA.

Indeed, Klinsmann has also opted for youth over experience in a defensive squad in which only one player, DaMarcus Beasley, has previous World Cup experience. Rookies John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are shock picks ahead of the battle-hardened Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst. So Donovan is not the only victim.

This looks like the end of Donovan's career for the U.S. and feels like the end of an era.

Tributes are in order for a genuine star player who began his American adventure by scoring against Mexico way back in 2000. Indeed, he made a habit of getting goals against the rivals from across the border, most notably in the round of 16 game at the 2002 World Cup.

Donovan leads the all-time list in assists as well as goals, while falling just a handful of caps short of Cobi Jones' record of 164. His was always a graceful and artistic style, aided by blistering speed and that sense of space and timing that only special players possess. His winner against Algeria in 2010 will always be remembered as one of the most dramatic in USA history, making the difference between elimination and topping the group ahead of England.

Without him, the U.S. need their other big players to hit top form in Brazil. That means Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones performing heroically to offset an unkind draw.

Much may depend on the ability of the still relatively inexperienced central defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler to cope with the clever movement of the high-class strikers they will face.

Strange to think that for the first time since 1998, Landon Donovan will be watching it all on TV in his Californian home.

We thank him for the memories and wish him well. His place in U.S. Soccer folklore is assured.