The world took notice on Thursday, when US Soccer’s National Team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann announced his roster for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Eyebrows were raised not at who made the team, but at who didn't make it — namely, player Landon Donovan.
US soccer superstar Landon Donovan has been the face of the US National Team in the past three World Cups. In 2010, he made a stunning and crucial final-second goal against Algeria to win the game.
“There’s a rational response to the news," says Roger Bennett, "and an emotional response.” Bennett is one half of Men in Blazers, the soccer podcast from ESPN's Grantland.
The rational response, says Bennett, is that the US team will be playing three games in Brazil in almost “microwave-esque” conditions, including one game in the Amazonian rain forest. An aging Donovan has admitted, according to Bennett, that he’s not as healthy as he once was.
“It’s taking him longer to rebound from games,” says Bennett, “and this is a tournament where you need your 23 best athletes, as well as your 23 best footballers.”
But while Coach Klinsmann has made the rational choice, the emotional response of fans around the world is palpable.
“I think this cut, this close to the World Cup, has had the kind of reaction that, in 'Game of Thrones,' Ned Stark’s execution had at the end of series one. It’s been very difficult for American soccer fans,” says Bennett.
Bennett has been following Klinsmann for an ESPN documentary he’s directing called, “Inside: U.S. Soccer’s March to Brazil.” Klinsmann told Bennett: “I’m picking people for the present, I’m not picking people on their past record; I want people who can contribute to the present and the the future.”
Two weeks ago, Bennett interviewed Donovan as part of the documentary and asked him about his chances for making the team. Bennett says that Donovan didn’t seem all that confident. “If I’m chosen, I will go down to Brazil and give my all,” Donovan told Bennett. “If I’m not chosen, I will be the greatest cheerleader for this team.”
Beyond the Donovan decision, many in the soccer world have their eyes on Saturday’s Champions League Final.
In a history-making match, two Spanish teams from the capital Madrid will go head-to-head in Portugal. Real Madrid will be playing Atletico Madrid. That's something like the "subway series," when the Mets go head-to-head with the Yankees. In this case, it's also like David versus Goliath.
“Real Madrid are one of the biggest brands in football, almost like an ATM in the way they buy and sell the world’s best players. They are propelled by the Portuguese player Cristiano Ronaldo,” says Bennett. And the big-money behemoth is up against their cross-town rival Atletico Madrid, which is "financially way outside the heavy hitters,” says Bennett.
Atletico Madrid's manager is Argentinian Diego Simeone, who has propelled his team by making them believe that they are world class. This weekend, we’ll see if heart can trump money.
In any event, Bennett says, Saturday’s game is good prep for what’s to come at the World Cup in June.
“There’s no better way for an American audience to prepare themselves — almost as if an amuse-bouche for the World Cup, which is fast approaching towards us — than to tune into this game,” he says.