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Jun 29, 2014

Jurgen's Donovan decision revisited

ESPN's Jeremy Schaap sits down with United States veteran DaMarcus Beasley as they discuss his long career and Landon Donovan.

FORTALEZA, Brazil -- When it comes to the U.S. national team, one name that hasn't come up lately is that of Landon Donovan.

That's what happens when you emerge from the group stage at a World Cup. Getting out of the first round tends to be the demarcation line between success and failure. That's not true for those countries occupying the stratosphere of the international game, but it remains the case for a team like the United States.

The same is true for managers. Advance and every choice a coach makes is cast in a positive light, especially when a team emerges from a group as difficult as the one that the Americans inhabited. Go home and the Hubble telescope is broken out to dissect every decision from every conceivable angle.

The reality is that a team's World Cup journey, and the decisions that go with it, is rarely so black and white. A choice that turns out poorly might have been rooted in some cast-iron internal logic. And sometimes a team succeeds in spite of decisions rather than because of them.

In looking at the broader context of Klinsmann's choices, it's clear he has gotten plenty right.

"You can't complain," said ESPN television analyst Alejandro Moreno. "If we had to put money on it, none of us would have said that the U.S. would've gone through. The proof is right there, and to some degree Klinsmann has proved himself correct."

- Alvarez: Heat doesn't let up in knockout stages
- McIntyre: Klinsmann 'very satisfied' with Bradley
- McIntyre: Belgium holds no fear of U.S.

There was much scratching of heads, in this space and elsewhere, when the final 23-man roster was announced in May. But two of the more controversial elements -- the inclusions of defender John Brooks and defender/midfielder DeAndre Yedlin -- have paid off.

It has been stated before but bears repeating: Brooks' game winner against Ghana was the pivotal moment of the first round for the Americans. If the U.S. ties that match, the pressure would have built, throats would have constricted, and doubt would have crept into the team's psyche. Instead, the Americans got three points, a jolt of confidence and some precious breathing room thanks to Brooks' heroics.

Yedlin, too, has acquitted himself well, settling into a super-sub midfield role that has used his speed and seen him be effective in each of the last two matches. His late run down the right wing helped create the havoc that eventually resulted in Clint Dempsey's goal against Portugal. He nearly duplicated the feat against Germany with another low cross, although on this occasion the sequence ended with Alejandro Bedoya's shot being blocked by Philipp Lahm.

In terms of Donovan's absence, matters aren't so cut and dried. If the U.S. emerge from a group of death, has Donovan really been missed? Given that there is another level that the U.S. team can reach, a compelling argument can be made that Donovan hasn't.

Looked at another way, however, it seems clear the U.S. would have benefited from Donovan's presence. After the match against Germany, Klinsmann bemoaned his side's inability to be calm with the ball under pressure and maintain possession. Such traits have long been a staple of Donovan's game. It stands to reason that Donovan could have aided an attack that generated the second-fewest chances during the group stage.

Landon Donovan may have been useful in Brazil, but a lack of cover for Jozy Altidore has been a bigger concern.

"The argument about Landon Donovan is not whether the team has missed him or not," said Moreno. "I think the argument is that, at some point, you could use his talent. I think even the players would tell you it's nice to have that option."

Yet even if one takes the view that Donovan's omission was a mistake, it doesn't come close to being the biggest one Klinsmann made. That would be not having adequate cover behind injured striker Jozy Altidore. Ever since Altidore fell to the Arena das Dunas turf against Ghana, the U.S. has been backed into a tactical corner where Clint Dempsey has been forced to fill the lone forward void, a role that doesn't play to his strengths. It points to Eddie Johnson or Terrence Boyd as being a significant omission.

"Donovan gives you a different dimension, but he doesn't give you holdup play," said Moreno. "The areas of need the U.S. has aren't what Donovan does best."

Of course, there is at minimum another game to be played. It will constitute another chance to tilt the prism in which Klinsmann's decisions are viewed, providing a different perspective.

If the U.S. manage to defeat Belgium, no doubt the verdict on Klinsmann's choices will continue to veer even more toward the positive and the choice to omit Donovan will continue to recede into the background.