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Jack Bauer Knows Best

Why Jurgen Klinsmann Dropped Landon Donovan

Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave Landon Donovan off the United States World Cup roster isn't all that shocking. It's easily explained by the first season of a certain television show.
BY Noah Davis Posted
May 23, 2014
8:48 AM
During the first season of 24, Jack Bauer defeats the terrorists and rescues his kidnapped family. Then, in the season's final episode, just when the viewing audience thinks everything will turn out fine, his wife is shot and dies. It's a shocking moment; a complete surprise.

The director actually shot two final scenes. In one, Bauer's wife dies. In the other, she lives. When asked why they chose the former, the producers said something to the effect of "we never wanted the audience to feel safe." The Bauers reunited was how the audience wanted it to end, but that's not real life. Real life is ugly. The choice to take something away, that singular moment, sent 24 down a specific path one where the audience never felt safe, never relaxed.

Sound familiar?

Jurgen Klinsmann's surprising decision to leave Landon Donovan off the United States national team roster was his 24 moment. Since Sunil Gulati hired the German to take the American team into the future, Klinsmann has constantly talked about the need for his players to push themselves, to not feel like they have a spot. Well, success; no one is going to feel safe ever again. While Klinsmann called it the "toughest decision in my coaching career," I very much doubt that it was. When you step back to think about the choice, it's merely Klinsmann's philosophy taken to its logical conclusion.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but it wasn't impossible to see this coming. Jon Arnold and I touched upon it during a podcast two weeks ago, a feeling that Donovan wouldn't be around when the Americans flew to Brazil. Surprising? Yes. Shocking? Hardly. (I'm more surprised that Timothy Chandler made the roster than that the Los Angeles Galaxy forward didn't.)

2014 was always going to be the end of something, of a time best symbolized by Donovan. That end came sooner than anticipated—May 22 instead of June 26—but Klinsmann was always going to do it on his schedule. Donovan dug his own grave with his trip to Cambodia and, even though he earned his way back into the squad, it had passed him by in the mind of the coach, the only man who mattered. So he'll be watching from home this summer while his teammates, friends, and countrymen compete in Brazil.

The U.S. team at the World Cup won't be young—it is, on average, older than the 2010 group—but it will be short on experience. Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and Tim Howard are the only men with World Cup experience. Not a single player on the backline will have ever started a World Cup game in defense. I wonder if that's where Donovan's resume would help. Not so much on the field where he probably wasn't going to start but during the long times between matches, the nervous locker room before the games, and in the pre-tournament camp. Experience matters at these things. (Otherwise, how do you explain Julian Green, John Anthony Brooks, and DeAndre Yedlin? They'll benefit in 2018 from their ridealong this summer.) But we can't know the tenor of the team, the role Donovan played behind the scenes. He's always been a guy who seems like he leads by example, and it's hard to do so when you're not playing. Captain Dempsey, along with Bradley, Howard, and Beasley can be leaders. They'll have to be.

Is Landon Donovan one of the 23 best soccer players in the United States? At this moment, I would say yes. Nothing against Brad Davis, but I'd take Donovan. But my vote doesn't count. Neither does yours. None of them do. And, more to the point, the 23 best players don't go to the World Cup. The goal is a team, a cohesive unit that gels and is better than the collection of its parts. Clearly, Klinsmann believes the potential harm caused by leaving one of the biggest names in American soccer off the plane is less than the benefit of bringing him. He better be right. Because leaving Donovan, the highest-scoring American player, off the roster put the spotlight squarely on the coach. As a player, Klinsmann always shined in the glare. He covets it as a coach as well.

In the spring of 2010, 24 went off the air after an eight-year run. The viewing public had grown tired of Bauer's unceasing cutthroat nature, his high-wire, hair-trigger style. The producers of the show never let the audience catch its breathe, another battle always just around the corner. It was too much, too intense. Constant vigilance gets exhausting.

Last month, 24 returned. The premise is same: Bauer runs around the world trying to save it, doing anything and everything he can to do so. Bad things happen. People die. Surprises await. Morality and fairplay are suspended in the name of the bottom line. We'll see where it goes.

Go, go USA. But also: Tick. Tick. Tick.

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