International Friendly Preview: USMNT vs. Ecuador
It’s Landon’s last day, but Austin Fido wonders whether USMNT vs. Ecuador might be the start of something for a new name or two…
Stories need endings. This match, the second of USMNT’s long march to Russia 2018, is cast as the end of Landon Donovan’s record-setting tenure with the Stars and Stripes.
There will, of course, be a hell of an epilogue. A book? No doubt. Documentary? Inevitably. Some sort of Hollywood treatment for US soccer’s star? Quite possibly. And one suspects Donovan is looking forward to the opportunity to hop into the commentary box and offer his take on where the national team might improve (spoiler: he’s likely to have strong opinions about the coaching for the foreseeable future).
But before those stories can be told, LD needs to wrap up his career on the field. Were it not for his mandated appearance in this game, the scriptwriters, biographers and armchair analysts would have been left with the entirely unsatisfying prospect of ending Donovan’s USMNT story in Glendale, Arizona – where Landon played the last 30 minutes of a 2-2 draw with Mexico.
No one expected that to be Donovan’s last game for USMNT. There was no standing ovation for a great servant to his country and his sport, not nearly enough digital ink spilled in the rush to eulogize his career, and – in light of subsequent events – it was distressingly possible that the last word on LD’s contribution to international soccer would be left to an intemperate teenager:
That would have been unfortunate. Whether you think Donovan should have been in Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad for Brazil or not, the man contributed a great deal to whatever success USMNT has enjoyed for more than a decade. He deserves a better send-off than 140 characters of snark. He certainly deserves to at least be insulted by people old enough to have witnessed his entire body of work and capable of spelling his name correctly.
So US Soccer has arranged for Landon to get a formal farewell. It has been, thus far, a slightly awkward occasion. First, we were told to expect no more than 30 minutes of Donovan, since he is in the middle of a fonder farewell to MLS, one which may yet deliver two more trophies to him: the 2014 Supporters’ Shield and MLS Cup. Injury or fatigue cannot be risked for a man with a maximum of eight games remaining for LA Galaxy.
Second, it doesn’t really feel like Donovan is particularly welcome. Yes, he gave a press conference in which he talked about his gratitude for the opportunity (to say goodbye, one assumes), and his feeling that a formal send-off is entirely warranted given his contribution to USMNT’s cause. But he gave that press conference with Sunil Gulati alongside him, not Jürgen Klinsmann.
Klinsi’s press conference was the day before, at a moment in the day when Donovan hadn’t yet turned up to join the team. International captains don’t often take the scenic route to training camp.
The Yanks’ head coach, – World Cup, European Championship and two-time UEFA Cup winner – took the opportunity to give his opinion on Landon’s career (tl;dr: Klinsmann thinks Landon might have achieved more if he’d stuck it out in Europe a little longer) in pointed isolation from the man who will captain USMNT against Ecuador.
Both Klinsmann and Donovan have taken the chance to trade petty jabs with each other in the press: Landon says he never got an apology for that unfortunate tweet, Klinsi says an apology was issued; Jurgie thinks LD didn’t do as much with his career as his talent would have allowed; USMNT’s all-time leading goalscorer and assist-maker thinks he should have been on the plane to Brazil.
They’re not pals.
It would seem fair to expect the LD vs JK throwdown has scarcely begun: once liberated from his obligations as a player, Donovan will be encouraged to tell us what he really thinks; Klinsi will eventually not be the USMNT head coach, and seems easy enough to provoke into a reply.
But for one more game, they will have to find a way to get along.
The entire match will be overshadowed by Donovan’s extended goodbye to the fans he’s served since his national team debut in 2000. This is entirely fair.
But there are some other issues to consider. Once LD picks up and moves on, Klinsi still has a team to manage and a few more trophies to try to win, of which the 2018 World Cup is merely the most important.
Ibarra plies his trade in NASL, the second tier of US soccer’s pyramid, and he has never before represented his country at any age-group level (he’s 24, so he won’t be appearing on any youth teams in the future either).
This ought not to be considered too unusual. In the same squad, Klinsi has called up Tim Ream (currently playing for Bolton Wanderers in England’s second tier of professional football), Alfredo Morales (contracted to FC Ingolstadt 04, presently of 2. Bundesliga) and Bobby Wood (signed with 1860 Munich, also in Germany’s second division).
Further, Ibarra at least is an important part of his team and significant contributor to the league he plays in: he was named NASL’s player of the month for September 2014. Jozy Altidore can scarcely get off the bench these days for Sunderland, and John Brooks just got busted down to the U23s by his coach at Hertha Berlin.
There are a lot of reclamation projects in this squad, as Klinsmann has opted to give many of his presumed favorites a rest, in some (but not all) cases because they are also actively involved with teams chasing places in the forthcoming MLS playoffs.
Not to put too fine a point on it, this is largely a USMNT B-team. Only 10 of the players called up were in Brazil; just seven have made more than 20 appearances for their country.
This is as it should be at this point in the World Cup cycle. The last campaign is still fresh in the memory, those who were good enough to be in the 23 for Brazil are presumably still good enough to make significant contributions to the team moving forward, but there is much to gain and nothing to lose by using the last few matches of 2014 to test some new talent.
USMNT’s opponent, Ecuador, is doing the same thing. Nine players from La Tricolor’s World Cup squad have been named to roster for the October friendlies. The team is even copying the Yanks’ decision to use this month to say goodbye to a retiring legend: 40-year-old Iván Hurtado, who most had considered retired from international football in 2010, will take one last bow for Los Amarillos against El Salvador on 10/14.
But most of Ecuador’s stars – Michael Arroyo, Jefferson Montero, Joao Rojas, Fidel Martínez, Antonio Valencia – are not on this trip. There are seven uncapped players on the roster, and a further six who have yet to reach double-digit appearances for their country. Twelve of the players in the squad are under 23.
For those who follow MLS, Joao Plata will be the most recognizable name of the Ecuadorian up-and-comers. But keep an eye out for Carlos Gruezo, a 19-year-old midfielder who has been getting regular appearances in the early stages of Stuttgart’s Bundesliga 2014-15 campaign, and was on La Tricolor’s World Cup roster.
Since bowing out at the group stage in Brazil, Ecuador’s form has been encouraging: the team thrashed Bolivia in Florida (4-0 on September 6) and lost narrowly to Brazil in New Jersey (0-1 on September 9). But that was with a stronger squad.
Both teams arrive in October to bid a couple of legends of their respective national games farewell. Both are taking the chance to have a look at some less experienced prospects. And neither is likely to dwell too much on the result of this particular match.
Still, with some new faces likely to appear for both sides, there is a chance history may regard this game not merely as the end for LD, but perhaps also as the beginning for a new international soccer star.
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Austin Fido is OTF Soccer’s USMNT and CONCACAF editor. He tweets @canetop.