The U.S. made history in its World Cup opener against Ghana, albeit in ugly fashion.
As we all know, Clint Dempsey became the fastest American to score a World Cup goal yesterday, putting the U.S. ahead 1-0 just 29 seconds into the game. Four minutes after Ghana evened the score in the 82nd minute, John Brooks’s header -- the first goal by a substitute in U.S. World Cup history -- gave the Americans the lead for good.
But admit it: The U.S. would probably like to forget everything that happened in-between. Ghana dominated possession and exposed the Americans’ weakness on the right side. Ghana controlled the ball 59 percent of the game and outshot the U.S. 21 to 8. According to ESPN Stats and Info via FiveThirtyEight, the U.S. also recorded 45 clearances -- the most by any team since at least 1966 -- and had a tournament-high 88 touches in the defending penalty area.
Also within those 80-some minutes, a pair of hamstring injuries hugely altered the look of Team USA, possibly for the entire World Cup. Striker Jozy Altidore went down with a strained hamstring around the 23rd minute and could be out for the rest of the tournament. It’s a big blow to the Americans as they lose one of their best offensive threats. It’s also adding fuel to the Landon Donovan supporters who insist U.S. head coach Juergen Klinsmann should have kept the all-time leading U.S. scorer on the roster.
Immediately after the injury, New York Times’s Sam Borden tweeted what many fans were thinking: “Wouldn't it be nice if there was a scorer on the bench right now?” “Altidore injury raises more Landon Donovan questions for USA,” reads a headline on Goal.com. “The decision to leave the iconic Donovan out of the squad could come back to haunt Klinsmann,” Luis Herrera writes. “Even if he is no longer at his prime, the LA Galaxy star would still be a better partner for Dempsey than either Johansson or Wondolowski.”
Okay, so Chris Wondolowski and Aron Johansson don’t exactly inspire confidence. But this shouldn’t even be a discussion, and SB Nation’s Kevin McCauley handily explains why:
Except this isn't what Landon Donovan would be in the United States team for if he had been picked ahead of Chris Wondolowski, Brad Davis or Julian Green. He's played as a central attacking midfielder, second striker or winger for the USMNT. It's extremely rare that he leads the line, for them or the LA Galaxy. He's not a target forward and he's never been a true No. 9 of any kind.
On a broader level, those who insist on Donovan’s inclusion are missing the point entirely. Klinsmann, like everyone else, doesn't think his team has any real shot of winning the World Cup this year, but he has a higher purpose. His main is for his players to gain exposure and international experience, and to have the youngsters catch the eye of possible suitors abroad and get their feet wet at the highest level of global competition. Of the 23-man roster, seven are younger than 25, and seven were born or have lived overseas. For the Americans, the 2014 World Cup is where the training wheels come off.
Klinsmann is playing long ball. The goal of building a lasting, successful national team, with this year’s young roster as its foundation, while increasing the sport’s popularity back home, far outweighs any immediate benefit an aging Donovan would have added.
In the meantime, the second hamstring injury to the U.S. allowed Klinsmann at least a few minutes of reprieve from criticism. When defender Matt Besler was knocked out of the game around the 40th minute, Brooks was his replacement. As Donovan himself put it, “Anytime you sub a guy in and he scores you look like a genius.”
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