The fact that Landon Donovan is not playing and Rafa Marquez is playing in Copa America tells a lot about soccer in the U.S.
It is unclear whether Donovan pulled out on his own or was pressured by the Los Angeles Galaxy to skip the tournament. During the Gold Cup, Donovan indicated he would consider going to Copa America, despite the extra wear and tear he expected to endure. But a couple of days before Bob Bradley released the U.S. roster, something happened to prevent Donovan from being included. The fact the Galaxy had totaled only nine points in the first three months of the season might have had something to do with it.
In any case, if the Galaxy is struggling that badly, it is a sad commentary for a team which two years ago won the MLS and U.S. Open cups. This also highlights a difference between the MLS and the top leagues in the world. FC Barcelona, for example, would not fall off as far the Galaxy has so quickly. Barcelona has lost great players in the past (Diego Maradona and Ronaldo come to mind) without being reduced to panic mode.
Donovan was placed in a Catch-22 situation, being asked to go from one continental championship to another in the midst of the regular season -- the club-versus-country conundrum times two. The past few weeks could not have been easy for Donovan, with the Galaxy and U.S. Soccer tugging on his cape. This is the sort of conflict FIFA's universal calendar was supposed to solve but, in fact, the situation could be even worse. In 2009, the U.S. will be playing in both the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup, competing in World Cup qualifiers, and also be invited to Copa America.
As for Marquez, consider this. Near the end of the Spanish season, Marquez was injured, but he remained with Barcelona, attempting to recover in time to help with a late run. When Marquez arrived for the Gold Cup, he was clearly below par. But Marquez also clearly wanted to participate in Copa America, and he has been an inspirational figure for Mexico.
Had Donovan gone to Venezuela with the U.S., he would also have been an inspiration for teammates. With Donovan, the U.S. might not have fared well against Argentina, but it could have had hope against Paraguay. Others, both Europe- and MLS-based, also could have contributed experience and leadership to the U.S., as well. They should not be blamed for following their instincts of self-preservation, not only protecting their health but also their status with their clubs.
Certainly, the patchwork nature of the U.S. entry in Copa America displays a lack of respect for the tournament. This is neither the fault of Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president who accepted the invitation to compete in Copa America, nor of Bradley, nor of the players who skipped the tournament. The MLS itself is partly to blame, its coaches reluctant to let players go, the system of player selection so flawed that teams lack depth. MLS teams should be able to survive six or seven games without key players; they had better find a way to do so by '09, because Donovan and others definitely will be gone for the Confederations and Gold cups, plus qualifiers.
But there will be positives from this Copa America experience. Competitions shine a spotlight on teams, displaying their strengths and weaknesses for all to see. That is what happened to the U.S. in the World Cup in Germany and it is happening again in Venezuela. U.S. players must become savvier. They must think more quickly, they must learn to pace the game, to hold onto the ball and make the opposition chase it. There are all sorts of lessons that only can be learned by competing against the best in the world. But these lessons can be painful.
Bradley and Gulati probably are feeling the most pain right now; they are the leaders, responsible for the prestige and well-being of the national team, concerned with placing the team in a position to succeed. The U.S. players who have lost in Copa America are suffering, and so are the ones who are not there but know they could be helping their comrades in Venezuela. Chalk it up to experience. The Mexican and U.S. presence in South America's championship could have far-reaching implications, far beyond the concerns of Donovan and the Galaxy. Someday, Copa America could encompass the entire Western Hemisphere, with games being played in Los Angeles itself. And we will all wonder what the big fuss could have been back in '07.
Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPN.