By IVES GALARCEP
MIAMI– As the sun sizzled and the sweat formed on the brows of American soccer’s best players on Monday afternoon, you could see most of the familiar faces present at U.S. Men’s National Team practice. From Tim Howard to Michael Bradley, the nation’s best went through the paces of preparing for a crucial World Cup qualifier, and with the exception of a few key players that were en route from Sunday matches abroad, the group felt complete despite one obvious absence.
Landon Donovan isn’t a part of the U.S. team preparing for Wednesday’s qualifier against Honduras, so he wasn’t here. In fact, there is a good chance he spent part of Monday traveling from New Orleans, where he watched the Super Bowl in person. His absence from this national team camp, and this world cup qualifying squad, wasn’t really a surprise given the fact he has slowly backed away from the U.S. National team as he considers the next chapter of his career. But with a vital Hexagonal match approaching there was something just a bit noticeable about his absence.
These are the kind of games Donovan has become known for featuring in, and playing a key role in. In fact, Wednesday will mark the first time Donovan hasn’t featured in Hexagonal World Cup qualifying match that mattered since July 1, 2001, a span of 20 qualifiers spread over three qualifying cycles. In fact, during that time he has missed just two Hex qualifiers, both in 2005 after the national team had already secured qualification into the 2006 World Cup.
Not having Donovan on the field in San Pedro Sula will be made easier by the fact that he has not been a part of the team much in the past year and a half. With the except of a six-game stretch last summer, Donovan has been largely absent, missing 13 of the national team’s 19 matches since September of 2011. Those absences include the final four matches of the previous round of qualifying.
That is why when the subject of Donovan’s absence was brought up on Monday, there wasn’t too much of a sense that he was being missed.
“At this point (it’s) not that strange,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said when asked about the strangeness of Donovan’s absence. “It’s been a little while. We miss having him here, as we do a lot of different guys.
“Landon knows as much as anybody that when his head is in it, and his heart in it, he’s a big part of things here,” Bradley said. “But the reality of the moment is he feels like for himself he needs to take some time and we, on a personal level hope he uses this time and is able to get what he wants out of it because we all have played with Landon for a long time and been on the field with him on a lot of days.
“First and foremost you want what’s best for him and obviously he felt like he needed some time to figure out what was next for him and how to go forward,” Bradley said. “We all support that, but at the same time life goes on here. We’re excited about the guys we have here. We’re confident in the group we have and that’s life. That’s soccer.”
On the field, the national team will call on a deep stable of forward options to make up for Donovan’s absence. With the preferred 4-4-2 of the Bob Bradley era giving way to Klinsmann’s preferred variations of 4-3-3 and 4-1-3-2, Donovan’s absence makes less of an impact than it might have three or four years ago, when there weren’t as many quality forward options.
The team must still make up for the absence of the leading scorer in U.S. Men’s National team history, and there stands a good chance that he could return to a key role on the team if and when he decides he wants to return, but when this U.S. team takes the field in Honduras it won’t be a team that will look incomplete without Donovan.