Of the 18 players named to the U.S. roster to face Poland Wednesday in Krakow, perhaps the most obvious selection is the one who should have been omitted: Landon Donovan.
He's one of three MLS players who must fly back to be with their MLS teams for matches on opening weekend; Ricardo Clark and Brian Ching of Houston play at New England, the Galaxy is at Colorado.
But it's not the inevitable jet lag and fatigue, nor possible injury, that should have prompted U.S. coach Bob Bradley to exclude him. He's the best U.S. player, no question, and is Bradley's best option for at least two positions.
And that's why Bradley should have taken this chance to leave him behind, to once again force other players to take the staggering burdens so often shouldered by Donovan, to give Benny Feilhaber and Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson and Michael Bradley and whoever else might be needed to thread a pass through a congested goalmouth or take off on a scything dribble or race upfield to finish off a long ball the duty to do just that.
Every match, be it friendly or competitive, is a chance to win, of course, and no coach wants to lessen his team's chances to come out ahead. Yet with another daunting summer at hand, a gauntlet of World Cup qualifiers and the Olympic Games, not to mention three more tough friendlies - England, Spain, Argentina - in the spring, the cause is better served by testing others under pressure rather than relying on the known quantity.
Donovan is criticized for cruising through MLS matches and turning it on just long enough to scrape out a result; maybe it's over-reliance on Donovan that partially explains why Los Angeles hasn't reached the playoffs since 2005 despite Donovan's production.
In the last two seasons, his stats are 20 goals and 21 assists in 49 games. No Americans have matched those numbers in back-to-back seasons that included a World Cup year since Joe-Max Moore and Cobi Jones (1998-99). Donovan's increased his MLS stats since he attained a critical role with the national team at the 2002 World Cup: in league play that year and next, he scored 19 goals and registered nine assists in 42 games.
Over-reliance on one player and laxity aren't likely under the searing scrutiny of Bradley, and it must be said last fall in Basel and Johannesburg, the Americans came home with 1-0 wins over Switzerland and South Africa sans Donovan. Bradley's choices are limited by the Poland match falling just three days after the conclusion of Concacaf Olympic qualifying play.
Yet any chance to battle for results without Donovan should be taken for two reasons: a) inspiration and determination are extracted under duress from other players, and b) at some point, he's bound to suffer a injury that will sideline him for a few weeks or months, and if that absence falls during a run of qualifiers, for example, his teammates need to be readier than they are now.
Never mind Mexico in Azteca; Guatemala in Estadio Mateo Flores is nasty enough. There's little fear of not qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, but as the USA so depressingly showed two years ago in Germany, it is desperately short on game-breakers if Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley aren't on the beam. Donovan will be summoned this spring for harsh friendlies against England, Spain and Argentina that come just before the beginning of World Cup qualifying.
It's seemingly illogical to leave home your best player and face a rugged European opponent on the road without him. But in this case, the logic of illogic applies, for there are greater needs than a result against Poland, and the more players put under the cosh, as the English say, the better, be they in MLS or Euro-based.