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U.S. soccer team finds its footing

KEVIN BAXTER / ON SOCCER

June 16, 2013|KEVIN BAXTER
  • American forward Jozy Altidore is congratulated by teammate Graham Zusi after scoring during a World Cup qualifying game against Jamaica.
American forward Jozy Altidore is congratulated by teammate Graham Zusi… (Andres Leighton / Associated…)

Landon Donovan and Juergen Klinsmann are not the best of friends. Which can be a problem given that Donovan is arguably the best soccer player in the history of the U.S. national team, the team Klinsmann now coaches.

Part of what separates the two is approach. Donovan believes there is life outside soccer, while Klinsmann believes life is soccer. And that helps explain why Donovan hasn't played for Klinsmann in more than 10 months.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 19, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. soccer team: An article in the June 16 Sports section said the U.S. team was taking a 24-match winning streak at home in World Cup qualifying into Tuesday's game in Utah against Honduras. In fact, the U.S. entered that game with a 24-match unbeaten streak in qualifying on home soil, with a 22-0-2 record dating to 2001.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, June 23, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. soccer team: An article in the June 16 Sports section said that the U.S. team was taking a 24-match winning streak at home in World Cup qualifying into Tuesday's game in Utah against Honduras. It should have said that the U.S. entered that game with a 24-match unbeaten streak in qualifying on home soil, with a 22-0-2 record dating to 2001.

But here's why Donovan, 31, may not start for Klinsmann's national team going forward: The U.S. is getting along just fine without him.

Yes, Donovan, the national team's all-time leader in goals and assists, was named to the U.S. provisional B team roster for next month's Gold Cup tournament. And, yes, the World Cup final is still a year away, plenty of time for Donovan to once again prove his worth.

Yet with 10 goals in its last four games, the U.S. has finally found the offensive chemistry Klinsmann has spent two years and 28 lineup combinations searching for. And for the time being, it doesn't include Donovan.

Three months ago, things looked different. The U.S. had been shut out by Canada and scored just two goals -- both by Clint Dempsey -- in its first three World Cup qualifiers.

Clearly the team needed an infusion of offense. But when that finally came it was delivered by 23-year-old Jozy Altidore, the man being counted on to replace Donovan.

After going more than 16 months without a goal, Altidore has scored in his last three games, the most recent in the first half of Tuesday's 2-0 win over Panama in a World Cup qualifier.

As a result, the United States is riding high. With one loss in its last six games, it is atop the table at the midway point of the regional qualifying tournament for just the second time in two decades.

So now Klinsmann is more interested in building on that chemistry rather than adding new elements.

"We want to fine-tune things," Klinsmann said after the victory over Panama, the Americans' most complete performance in his tenure as coach. "We want to improve the understanding on the field. We want to build partnerships. I think they are growing in that process."

Donovan, meanwhile, is also beginning to find his form again after a controversial three-month winter sabbatical.

The Galaxy captain, who had played a soccer game, on average, once every eight days for more than a decade, said he needed the break to rekindle his passion for the sport.

Klinsmann, however, saw the vacation as a lack of commitment to the game and his team on the eve of soccer's biggest event.

But the chill between coach and player appeared to have begun long before that.

After playing in eight of the last nine games of Bob Bradley's reign as U.S. coach, Donovan played just twice in the first 10 matches under Klinsmann.

And he appeared in less than half of the national team's games last year, although injuries accounted for some of those absences.

Donovan's inclusion on the B team roster for the Gold Cup was seen as a first step toward redemption and a World Cup invitation. It was a chance to demonstrate his fitness and his dedication, whereas for Klinsmann, it was an acknowledgment that Donovan still has a lot to offer.

"I do miss it," Donovan said this week. "I want to be out there, but the reality is different, so when I get my chance I'll be ready."

But the urgency for any rapprochement may have passed.

The U.S., arguably playing better soccer than it has in at least four years, will take a 24-match home winning streak in World Cup qualifying into Tuesday's match with Honduras in Sandy, Utah.

A win there, combined with a Costa Rican tie or loss, would give the Americans a four-point bulge in the standings with just four qualifiers remaining, making a berth in next summer's World Cup tournament in Brazil a near certainty.

"The team is really coming together," U.S. defender Matt Besler said. "This group of guys are all on the same page. We are starting to play together, and I think that's showing."

Showing that they don't need Donovan?

Maybe. But barring anything short of a disastrous performance in the Gold Cup, Donovan will probably be back in the national team mix by the end of the year -- and in uniform in Brazil at this time next year.

By then the penance for his three-month break will have been served. Besides, he's simply too valuable a player to leave home. And Klinsmann, for all his devotion to cutting-edge training techniques, remains too respectful of soccer tradition to cut the greatest player in the country's history from his World Cup team.

Just don't look for Donovan to start if the U.S. continues to play well. Chemistry, after all, can vanish as quickly as it appeared. And now that Klinsmann has found lightning in a bottle, don't expect him to shake that up.

--

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

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