The doubt began to creep into Landon Donovan's conversations several months ago.
He is the leading scorer and playmaker in U.S. Soccer history, the best player the country has produced and at 32 healthy enough and experienced enough to be a World Cup difference-maker. Surely he was a lock to make the U.S. team for Brazil, right?
Not in his mind, which is why Donovan began talking about what would happen if, not when, he made it to his fourth World Cup
"In 2006 and 2010 I knew, for the most part — unless I was awful — that I was going to make the team. This time is more similar to '02 to where I wasn't sure," he said this week. "I have to prove that and I have to earn it."
On Thursday those doubts proved prescient when Donovan was among seven players cut by Coach Juergen Klinsmann as the United States announced its 23-man World Cup squad.
"Well this is certainly one of the toughest decisions in my coaching career, to tell a player like him, with everything he's done and what he represents, to tell him that you're not part of this right now," Klinsmann said Thursday. "His disappointment is huge. I totally understand that. He took it very professional because he's an outstanding professional player.
"But I have to make the decision as of today. I have to make the decision for what is good today for this group going into Brazil. And there I just think the other guys right now are a little bit ahead of him."
Donovan issued a response on Facebook.
"It has been an honor and privilege to have represented the U.S. National Team in three World Cups," he wrote. "I was looking forward to playing in Brazil and, as you can imagine, I am very disappointed with today's decision. Regardless, I will be cheering on my friends and teammates this summer, and I remain committed to helping grow soccer in the U.S. in the years to come."
In many ways, Donovan's omission wasn't all that surprising. The Galaxy standout, who has appeared in more World Cup games (12) and scored more goals (5) than any American player, has been at odds with Klinsmann since taking a three-month sabbatical from soccer at the start of World Cup qualifying last year.
Donovan said he needed a break after averaging a game nearly every eight days for a decade. And Klinsmann, who demands 24/7 devotion to soccer, used that to question Donovan's hunger and commitment. The rift appeared to widen last month when the coach challenged Donovan's fitness before a friendly with Mexico, then kept him on the sideline until early in the second half.
"I always, I believe, am straightforward with him," Klinsmann said last week of Donovan. "Since he took his break, I simply told him if you take a break like that then you have to fight your way back into the picture and you have to confirm it with week-in, week-out performances in your club team and you have to confirm it also with performances in the national team environment.
"With all the appreciation, with all the admiration for what's done throughout his career — which is extraordinary and deserves the compliments that he gets — soccer is about what happens today and what you do today and what you hopefully do tomorrow. I'm not building my roster or we're not building the group together based on the past."
The timing of the roster's release was almost as surprising as the names that were omitted since Klinsmann had promised to wait until the June 2 deadline for setting his World Cup team. Instead, he made the final cuts eight days into a three-week training camp, giving U.S. Soccer's media relations staff just 90 minutes notice to prepare a press release.
Six other players were sent home Thursday, among them defenders Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst, who were cut from a backline already facing questions about its health and experience.
Evans, who appeared in 10 games for the U.S. last year, played a big role in helping the team qualify for Brazil while Goodson was the only defender in camp who also played that position in the last World Cup. And the versatile, Parkhurst, who started five of the six U.S. games in last summer's Gold Cup, can play several positions.
Among those who made the World Cup team were 20-year-old defender DeAndre Yedlin, whose national team experience consists of 34 minutes off the bench in two friendlies; Julian Green, 18, whose half-hour in last month's Mexico game marked his only appearance for the U.S.; and 21-year-old defender John Brooks, who has played just twice for the U.S.
That leaves Klinsmann with seven players who are 24 or younger, 13 with 20 or fewer international caps and just six players with previous World Cup experience — already leading to speculation that Klinsmann, who recently signed a four-year contract extension, has begun looking ahead to 2018.