Let's step back and do a reality check for a moment, shall we? We like to think we are good at that here in America. We like to think we are objective (unlike morally challenged Uruguay - from coach Oscar Tabarez to President Jose 'Pepe" Mujica to most fans of La Garra Morder -- which actually thinks that Luis Suarez did nothing wrong in biting an opponent for the third time). Here in the States, we admit mistakes (perhaps too much so when it comes to foreign affairs -- which emboldens our enemies, not softens their hearts -- as our well-intentioned President oft forgets).
So, here's the mea culpa about the U.S. performance at the FIFA 2014 World Cup.
The USA was not any more impressive in this Cup than in previous World Cups. In fact, despite hosannas from various soccer newbies, we actually took a step backwards. Against Ghana, we were out-shot and outplayed for most of the match. The self-centered, if hugely talented, Black Stars failed to capitalize on several scoring chances (maybe they were still obsessed with the size of their bonuses). Meanwhile, our offense, outside of a fantastic goal 30 seconds into the match by the indomitable Clint Dempsey (who, in true USA fashion, played most of the game with a broken nose) and the header of his life by one of Coach Klinsmann's German imports, John Brooks, looked cautiously anemic.
Against a depleted Portugal, we actually pressed forward for a change, before a late game Michael Bradley lapse enabled a Cristiano-Ronaldo-assisted tying header by substitute Silvestre Varela. Against Germany, we were back to playing defensive football. And we lost. Ditto against Belgium, and we lost again.
America's overall 2014 FIFA World Cup record: two losses, one tie, one win. Hardly a performance to set the world on fire. Or a validation of Jurgen Klinsman's fitness-first pedagogy.
So, what exactly is the big takeaway here?
The USA desperately needed all-time USA goal and assist leader, Landon Donovan, whom Klinsmann inexplicably left off the 23-man USA team. When striker Jozy Altidore went down with a strained left hamstring in the 21st minute of the Ghana match, the sheer boneheaded petulance of the Donovan decision came home to roost. On multiple occasions throughout the tournament, there was stark evidence of the need for a creative playmaker like Donovan to come off the bench. Never more so than in the blown opportunity to easily score by Chris Wondolowski at the end of regulation in the knockout game against Belgium. There was no coaching brilliance in the Belgium game that put us in a last-second position to win. It was a shoddy, feckless, and, thus, strangely un-American, show of defensive football. And the score could easily have been 7-0, had not all-world keeper Tim Howard saved Klinsmann's Speck on a record-breaking 16 different occasions.
Donovan, to his eternal credit, has been soft-spoken and gracious throughout this insulting charade. His behavior is commendable given that, once again, America -- in a rare area in which we feel undeserved inferiority -- went off and hired a high-profile foreigner to ostensibly teach us how to do it better.
The USA has been playing international soccer since 1885. Tens of millions of Americans regularly play the game, especially in grade school and junior high. Our men's team made it to the World Cup semifinals in 1930, and the quarterfinals in 2002. And they have qualified for every World Cup since 1990. And our women's soccer team is widely regarded as the best in the world. So, we're not the equivalent of the Jamaican bobsled team, okay? And it's not as if we need some foreign coach - even a former soccer superstar like Jurgen Klinsmann -- to tell us how to play.
Americans find a way to win at any game, even when we don't have the top talent, even when it's not our national sport, and especially when the chips are down and the odds are stacked against us (see: Miracle on Ice). Stalwarts like Donovan proved that repeatedly on soccer's biggest stage. Only a clinical, yet strangely new age (perpetual Southern California sunshine does weird things to the otherwise level-headed Teutonic brain), soccer engineer like OC-based Klinsmann would deliberately overlook the obvious star quality of Donovan just because of his performance in practice. Good sir, what did you need to see in practice? Just look at the last three World Cups to see what the Redlands native can do. Just look at the 2010 World Cup game against Algeria, in which a last-second goal by Donovan propelled the US into the round of 16.
Leaving the LA Galaxy forward off the U.S. squad is like leaving a 32-year-old Michael Jordan off the USA Men's Olympic basketball team. 32-year-old Landon Donovan is the greatest, most clutch, scorer in US World Cup History (and he's won a few MLS championships to boot). Heck, Allen Iverson in his prime would routinely skip, or walk through, practice, but he always turned it on come game time. His American coaches understood that, and gave him slack. His teammates too. I doubt 36-year-old Miroslav Klose of Klinsmann's own Germany kept up real well against die Mannschaft's young bucks in practice. Nevertheless, he made the German squad, and contributed off the bench when it counted. Ditto for 35-year-old Andrea Pirlo of Italy.
Klinsmann's reasoning made zero sense at the time of his shocking decision -- most U.S. soccer fans were in angry disbelief when they heard about it -- and, after the disappointing USA result, definitely not now. I suspect that power dynamics had to be at play, and that Klinsmann did not want a successful "older" statesman like Donovan challenging his dogmatic German ways.
In the end, it's another example of blind U.S. trust in seeming "experts." It's like the decision to invade Iraq, which, as any fool could tell, was based on trumped up "evidence" and bogus rationales. But most Americans reasoned, "Well, these puffed up Bush guys act like they know what they are doing, let's give it a shot," even though we knew Saddam had zero to do with 9/11, was not harboring WMDs (as Hans Blix made obvious) and was not a clear and present danger to this country. Such misguided trust invariably comes back to bite us in the neck, Luis Suarez style. Yet, here we did it again on the world's greatest sports stage.
The confident Jurgen Klinsmann was not just wrong for leaving Donovan off the team, but he was doubly wrong for going against the manly spirit of this can-do nation in running with a highly defensive 4-5-1 posture, and, in clutch games, playing not to lose, instead of going for the jugular. That's a very safe German position from a cautious German coach who had low expectations for the potential of U.S. soccer players, and, who obviously, in his DNA, still does not grasp the killer instinct at the heart of the American zeitgeist. A true American coach would have gone for it, as we did when we beat top-ranked Spain in the semifinals and when we almost beat Brazil in the finals of the Confederations Cup back in 2009. Moreover, having Donovan in the locker room would have made sure that the uniquely Yankee drive to win at all costs was instilled and rewarded.
Instead, we fulfilled our narrow German coach's limited expectations, who got what he wanted: a country singing his praises when nothing empirically changed at all in the U.S. World Cup "result."
Bully for you Herr Klinsmann.
Now that this country has finally woken to the significance and beauty of the World Cup - when status quo sports stars like Kobe Bryant are tweeting about it, you know it's gone mainstream -- let's do what we do in every other sport in which a team does not measure up to its potential. Let's fire the underwhelming German mastermind and bring in a proven winner, with the necessary grace, wisdom and chutzpah to guide the USA to victory in Russia.
That person would be none other than Landon Donovan.