Shocked. Stunned. Dazed. Confused. Preki can’t believe it, either. The Republic FC coach – our local soccer legend who was known during his playing days for his clever left foot – thinks U.S. national team coach Jürgen Klinsmann committed one of those right-foot-in-mouth mistakes by leaving Landon Donovan off his 2014 World Cup roster.
Preki, in other words, is crooning with the chorus, calling a whistle on the play.
“No Landon?” he said the other day in his office, frowning. “I totally disagree with that.”
This is Landon Donovan, remember, the U.S. leader in goals and assists. The most celebrated American male soccer star of the past decade. The forward who scored the game winner against Algeria in the 92nd minute to secure a berth in the Round of 16 at the previous World Cup. The most recognizable male soccer figure in the country, who at 32 doesn’t sound interested in retirement.
When the tournament begins Thursday amid the colorful backdrop of Brazil, the worldwide audience will be reintroduced to the majesty of Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and Diego Costa, among others, and left to ponder Klinsmann’s curious, perhaps even divisive, decision regarding Donovan.
“We all know Landon can have a so-so (MLS) season here and there,” acknowledged Preki, a member of the U.S. World Cup team in 1998. “If he was 35 or 36, maybe you could understand it. But he’s not, and on the big stage, he’s the guy who can make plays for you. In my opinion, we still don’t have the guy on the next level to do what he can do.”
Preki has more immediate concerns, of course, than fretting about how his former national team will fare in soccer’s most prestigious event. Republic FC (6-3-1) is moving from 20,231-seat Hughes Stadium to Bonney Field, an 8,000-seat venue at Cal Expo, which excludes thousands of fans who contributed to three sellouts at the Sac City College campus.
The quandary figures to outlast the heat wave. While 4,500 seats might be added next season, a proposed Sacramento County sales tax, partly to fund the construction of a new soccer stadium, was tabled Friday. The impressive attendance figures notwithstanding – record-breakers for third-tier U.S. soccer – MLS won’t discuss expansion or relocation until someone steps up and finances fancier digs.
“Things come around eventually,” Preki shrugged. “We’re doing what we can to be decent on the field. I think the players have responded, and while things have been great over there (Hughes), it’s time for us to go on grass. And the narrow pitch … I just wish we had those extra 4,500 seats coming with us to Cal Expo. The size of the crowds has really surprised me.”
Speaking of surprises, Donovan’s exclusion troubles Preki on a number of fronts, including the potential harm to the American fan base.
“The World Cup always educates people who don’t follow the game on a regular basis,” Preki said, “and we want to get more and more people interested in the game. That’s how the sport grows. We have a simple issue in this country, that we don’t have enough quality players. We can judge that by how many European clubs are trying to buy our players. If you take out Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Landon, who else is there? That’s my question.”
He has a few more questions, perhaps even issues, including whether Klinsmann was an upgrade over Bob Bradley. Klinsman, a German icon who was hired in 2011 and secured through 2018, started shaking up the system long before he bounced Donovan. He overhauled the youth system, has required even the most established players to compete for roster spots for competitions and urges players to develop their skills in the top leagues in Europe.
He is not a fan of the MLS and its summer schedule, nor a fan of the American professional sports culture. In an interview with USA Today, he accused American parents of over-coaching. In a recent interview with The New York Times, he questioned the wisdom of Kobe Bryant’s $50 million contract.
“This always happens in America,” the Southern California resident told the Times. “Kobe Bryant, for example. Why does he get a two-year contract extension? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”
Preki, who like Klinsmann was born in Europe (Serbia), is married to an American, resides and raised children in the United States, loves the NBA – and isn’t sold on Klinsmann.
“I don’t think we are better now than we were four or five years ago when Bob Bradley was the coach,” Preki said. “People say I am biased because I worked for Bob (MLS), but I thought he was a very good coach, and I thought the program was moving in the right direction. We can look back at the end of the cycle, but, right now, I don’t see it. And it was really shocking to me that he (Klinsmann) didn’t call Landon.”
That controversy – the Donovan Dis – will hover for the next four years and end one of two ways: With Klinsmann hailed as a genius for his revolutionary tactics or U.S. Soccer Federation officials looking for yet another coach to preside over America’s chronic quest to become an international power.