I write you from the lobby of the surprisingly shitty hotel I so proudly reserved for my girlfriend and I here in Natal, just a few meters from the beach, maybe. It's dark. Can't tell for sure.
The lobby is showing Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and the rout is underway, giving us the chance to hear Spurs fans give their best to the soccer chant that is the riff from "Seven Nation Army."
Tonight, my girlfriend and I spent some time at the US Soccer Fan Party, which is every bit the drunken fratboy fest we expected. Heineken House, you need not fear.
Tomorrow, we will attend Ghana v. USA. Let's talk about that.
As is well known, this will be the third World Cup in a row in which these two teams will meet; as is also well known, Ghana was victorious in the previous two meetings, and eliminated the US both times as well.
I was at the first of these meetings. I was sitting a few rows back in the left corner that the US faced in the second half, when they were losing 2-1. There was a famous (infamous?) moment in that second half when Landon Donovan broke into the right side of the box, in a perfect and dangerous position.
From where I was sitting, he seemed to be running straight towards me. At the very least, we had a great view of him as he came charging in. A great view of his eyes.
They did not inspire confidence.
Donovan passed, when he could have shot, and the chance was gone. The US would lose the match, and leave the tournament.
Four years later, against Slovenia, Donovan charged the box in a similar situation, down 2-1, right side of the box. Having learned from the Ghana experience (or so it seemed), he did not hesitate. He shot right at the keeper's face, and scored. It would prove to be an essential goal in the US advancing into the second round. Maybe not Donovan's most essential goal that month, but still.
Of course, when I went to that match in Nurnberg, it was much easier. I was living in Amsterdam. The tournament was in Germany. There were no vaccinations. There were no visas. There were no flights. I rode my bicycle to the train station and one train took me all the way there (to Kaisersalutern for the Italy match too, which is a different, and more pleasing, story).
Now here I am in Brazil, with a girlfriend who was not into soccer before she met me. There have been seven vaccinations between us. Two visas. And, without even having seen a match yet, we have shared three plane flights on three airlines.
She is open-minded and sweet about all of it. But there has been nothing so far to suggest that this trip will be worth it.
Perhaps some beach time in Natal will be all it takes. Maybe a riverboat cruise in Manaus will be enough.
But the best thing would be a US win, either against Portugal in Manaus, or over Ghana here in Natal tomorrow.
There is simply no guarantee that it's going to happen.
Landon Donovan isn't here, of course. Coach Klinsmann has adjudged him to be of no use. Which is a pisser.
When the news was first announced, many of my friends- who, not being big soccer fans themselves, inexplicably look to me to give them an opinion- asked my take. The news had come as a surprise, but I tried to stay level-headed. These things happen, I told them. Players age, coaches don't care. Since none of us are there in training watching what's going on, none of us can say whether this was the right call or not. This coach has done everything asked of him so far, so... we have to trust him. And wish the team well. Landon or no.
A week later, I was still bothered by it. How could it be that Landon Donovan- a crafty, talented veteran, who had even expressed a willingness to come off the bench- could be of no use to this team? Julian Green, an untested 18 year-old, was more valuable?
These weren't just the feelings of a dumb fan, either. Listening to the soccer channel on Sirius XM Radio, national team stalwarts John Harkes and Tony Meola were still questioning the move as well.
It was a shock, no matter where you sit. It still feels like a personal thing between Klinsmann and Donovan. And none of it matters. Here we are, where Donovan is not.
The question is, has Klinsmann made the right call?
We cannot and will not know until we see if the US has made the second round or not.
For now... I can only say that there has been no reason yet to doubt Herr Klinsmann.
He led them to their first win in Mexico, and only their second-ever draw there in an official match. He led them to their first win in Italy. He led the team to a win in the Gold Cup (with a lot of help from Donovan, of course). He led them to first place in their World Cup qualification group.
He has done absolutely everything you could ask of a new US coach.
The most important thing though... that remains ahead of him. And it will start today.
It may yet come to pass that the Donovan decision is the step too far. But for now... I am inclined to retain my trust in our national team coach. I personally believe the US will make it to the second round.
And I truly hope they do. Because being dumped by my girlfriend while in Brazil would be fairly embarrassing.
- Brendan Hunt