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Landon Donovan World Cup snub sparks outrage, but stats aren't everything

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
updated 11:33 PM EDT, Sat May 24, 2014
In not just a personal highlight, but one of the greatest moments in American soccer, Landon Donovan, foreground left, celebrates with teammate Edson Buddle after scoring an injury-time goal against Algeria, propelling the United States into the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. In not just a personal highlight, but one of the greatest moments in American soccer, Landon Donovan, foreground left, celebrates with teammate Edson Buddle after scoring an injury-time goal against Algeria, propelling the United States into the knockout round of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
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Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
Highlights of Landon Donovan's career
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Landon Donovan has 57 goals and 58 assists in international career, both U.S. records
  • Coach Jurgen Klinsmann says he left Donovan off roster because other players are better
  • For all the highlights Donovan has amassed, performances of late have been lacking
  • If any player on roster is injured before World Cup, Donovan could be back, coach says

(CNN) -- Fifty-seven.

That's the number of goals Landon Donovan has scored for the U.S. national soccer team. It's 19 more than the total goals racked up by the No. 2 all-time scorer, World Cup captain Clint Dempsey.

It's also one fewer than Donovan's career assist tally, 58, which is 36 more setups than Hall of Fame midfielder Cobi Jones had in his lengthy career.

The only major benchmarks where Donovan isn't tops are shutouts, a statistic designated for goalkeepers and defenders, and caps, or game appearances, a stat in which Jones leads Donovan 164-156.

It's simple math, which is why, to fans casual and ardent, coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave the orchestrator of 115 goals off the 23-player World Cup roster doesn't add up.

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The sports world expressed outrage at Thursday's announcement -- and not your typical ho-hum soccer outrage (they flop! it's too low-scoring!), but real, palpable baseball- or football-esque outrage.

Americans, many of them thoughtfully, questioned a personnel decision, like they might question the Philadelphia Eagles not re-signing Mike Vick.

But this is soccer, and American soccer at that. So if Klinsmann is honest in saying that his goal is to raise soccer's profile in the United States, snubbing Donovan seems to have done the trick.

Now come the questions, the doubts, the Monday-morning goalkeepers. While some speculated whether Donovan's age (32) or perceived lack of heart -- he said in 2012 he wasn't sure if he wanted to go to Brazil and last year went on sabbatical during an arduous World Cup qualifying campaign -- others simply denounced the decision.

Bruce Arena, who coaches Donovan for Major League Soccer's Los Angeles Galaxy and also skippered the 2002 and 2006 World Cup squads, told the San Jose Mercury-News, "If there are 23 better players than Landon, then we have a chance to win the World Cup."

Meanwhile, soccer guru and Sports Illustrated writer Grant Wahl flatly stated, "Cutting Landon Donovan will prove to be a mistake."

Not everyone was so diplomatic, as some folks resorted to calling the move shortsighted or the machination of a madman. Of course, there were a few anti-German epithets hurled at Klinsmann on Twitter as well (never mind that he's a 1996 FIFA World Player of the Year who coached an unheralded German squad to a third-place 2006 World Cup finish).

More angry barbs were pointed squarely at the youngsters named to the squad -- in particular, Julian Green, 18, DeAndre Yedlin, 20, and John Brooks, 21, whose combined caps total a whopping six. Fans also decried the selection of Brad Davis, a 32-year-old MLS player who, while wicked with set pieces, at just 14 caps doesn't own a resume nearly as shimmering as Donovan's.

Klinsmann defended his squad -- and Green, Yedlin and Brooks -- in a Friday press conference, saying, "They might surprise some people."

As for Donovan, Klinsmann said other players were "a tiny little bit ahead of him," and though he didn't want to go into details, he alluded to Donovan not having the speed and ankle-breaking one-on-one skills he once possessed. Donovan recently acknowledged himself that he struggles to find the motivation to train at 100%. Still, Klinsmann said at the press conference, Donovan's a "great passer" with lots of experience.

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Donovan accepted the decision maturely, saying he was disappointed.

"Regardless, I will be cheering on my friends and teammates this summer, and I remain committed to helping grow soccer in the U.S. in the years to come," he wrote on Facebook. He has promised to field questions about his omission from the team Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, where his Galaxy play.

If he never took the field again for the United States, Donovan will have left an indelible mark on the team and its history.

Forget all the goals, assists or the hat tricks against Scotland, Ecuador and Cuba (he actually hung four on Cuba). There are reasons Donovan has earned a sort of cult fame among U.S. soccer's fan base, and notoriety among America's casual fans.

He's one of the primary reasons fans of archrival Mexico shudder when they hear the chant "dos a cero" (two to zero). The most glorious dos a cero for American fans came when Donovan buried the second goal in the 2002 World Cup round of 16. He scored four goals to lead the men's national team to a 2007 Gold Cup trophy and netted the winner against Honduras to earn the United States a ticket to the 2010 World Cup. He donned sunglasses that someone threw at him during a quarterfinal match in the 2013 Gold Cup quarterfinal, of which he was the inarguable star, and he's the reason Mexican fans chanted "Osama! Osama!" after he urinated, yup, on the consecrated pitch of Guadalajara's Jalisco Stadium in 2003.

And then there was the 2010 World Cup game against Algeria.

With only injury time left, the score 0-0 and the United States' hopes of advancing looking dim if not dead, the U.S. team launched a lightning counterstrike. Goalkeeper Tim Howard hit Donovan in stride. Donovan pushed the ball out to striker Jozy Altidore on the wing, who drove into Algeria's penalty area and attempted to set up Clint Dempsey. Dempsey's shot caromed off Algeria's goalkeeper into the path of Donovan, who buried it for a 1-0 win.

From Boston to Barstow, America's soccer faithful went nuts. How nuts? This nuts.

That's history, however. Donovan would be the first to say he's not the No. 10 of old. He has yet to score in seven games for his club this year, and his performances for the national team have been such that Klinsmann pulled him out of a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica last year and benched him during an April friendly against Mexico.

But for all the talk about Donovan's future and questions over whether the curtains have closed on a distinguished international career, Klinsmann told the Donovan-minded reporters at Friday's press conference that much could happen between now and June 16, when the USA takes on Ghana.

Should, heaven forbid, any of Team America's eight midfielders or four forwards suffer an injury in the run-up to the Cup, the coach said, Donovan could be right back in the fold. And all this ranting and raving could be for nothing.

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