(USA TODAY) The player widely regarded as the greatest in American soccer history will be watching the World Cup from home. Landon Donovan was among the seven players cut from the United States' 23-player World Cup roster on Thursday. It was expected to be his fourth and final World Cup.
Though Jurgen Klinsmann had been clear about his expectations for Donovan, few expected Donovan to be left off the roster entirely. As a result, expect the team's success or failure to be judged through the prism of Klinsmann's decision.
"This is certainly one of the toughest decisions – the toughest decision in my coaching career – to tell a player like him with everything he's done and what he represents, to tell him that you're not part of those 23 right now," Klinsmann said in a video released Thursday by US Soccer. "I just see some other players slightly ahead of him."
Before the roster was named, Alexi Lalas, a World Cup veteran and ESPN analyst, said that he viewed Donovan, 32, as a starter. "I don't see where his ability has deteriorated to where he's not the best option," Lalas said.
"If you don't take Landon Donovan, we know it's a difficult group, right? They could not make it through, you're going to get criticized," Lalas said. "But if you don't make it out of the group stage and you have Landon Donovan sitting home on a couch, it's going to be even worse. I don't know if Jurgen cares or not, there's strategic play going on here too."
In December 2012, after the Los Angeles Galaxy won the MLS Cup, Donovan needed time away from game. He didn't expect his coaches to understand or like his decision.
When someone is struggling with a physical injury, it's acceptable to take time off to recover, but when it comes to struggling mentally, there's still a stigma, he said.
MORE DONOVAN:We'll always have 2010
"If I hadn't taken time I would have been useless in a professional setting and probably a personal setting," Donovan said after he returned from his walkabout, which included a 10-day trip to Cambodia. "I needed a break and I don't use the word 'need' all that lightly. I had to listen to myself and do what was best for me."
Klinsmann has acknowledged Donovan's place in American soccer history, but he had no desire to award roster spots based on the past. "We're not building the group based on the past, we're building the group based on what we experience and go through together and what we believe, and as of today, is the right decision," Klinsmann said after naming the 30-man preliminary roster.
"The media thinks he's untouchable," Klinsmann said about Donovan in an ESPN documentary. "That's not how it works."
To some fans, Klinsmann has been on unduly harsh on Donovan. But before Thursday's decision, Donovan said Klinsmann's point is fair.
"I knew very well what the consequences were," Donovan told USA TODAY Sports recently. "He's trying to build a team so when one of your better players says 'I'm taking off for four months during some difficult games,' that has to leave a mark and I understand that.
"To his credit, although he made me work my way back -- which I should have to do -- he did give me a chance to get back in and I think some coaches would have said , 'No, you left the team.'"
And now, he's been left off the team.
The U.S. plays Azerbaijan in the first of three sendoff matches on Tuesday in San Francisco. The Americans then host Turkey on June 1 in Harrison, N.J., before playing Nigeria in Jacksonville, Fla., on June 7.
Seven players were released from training camp: Donovan and forward Terrence Boyd, midfielders Joe Corona and Maurice Edu, and defenders Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst.
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski
MIDFIELDERS: Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Mix Diskerud, Jermaine Jones, Graham Zusi and Julian Green.
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timmy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin
GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando
PHOTOS: U.S. 23-man roster for World Cup