A new World Cup cycle is dawning, and U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann embraced that sense of rebirth on Thursday, naming a young but intriguing team for the Sept. 3 friendly against the Czech Republic in Prague.
Klinsmann's 22-man squad features 15 players aged 24 or younger and six who’ve never been capped at the senior level. Among them is Seattle Sounders academy product Jordan Morris, a forward entering his sophomore season at Stanford. It’s been nearly two decades since a college player turned out for the senior U.S. squad.
Morris is joined by the likes of John Brooks and Julian Green, young players who distinguished themselves at the World Cup in Brazil, and veterans such as Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson and Jozy Altidore. It's a team fashioned to give the Czechs a game at the Stadion Letná, but one that sends a couple of clear, long-term messages. One is that the manager already has an eye on 2018 and is ready once again to broaden the player pool and offer a path. The second is one that several U.S. veterans learned over the past couple of years: No spot is safe, and the kids are coming.
"When you start a new cycle, you want to see as many new players and young players breaking in as possible," Klinsmann said. "Obviously you always respect your established players and you always want to give them the space to continue their good work, but you also want to use that opportunity going forward to introduce young blood into the program. ... Show us what you have. Show us your talent, be confident and go for your next level."
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, the third netminder on the World Cup roster, is the only MLS-based player heading to Prague. There also are three from the Mexican league. During the World Cup, Klinsmann expressed frustration with an international schedule that frequently makes it impossible to spend an extended period of time with a single squad featuring a balance of North American and European players. It’s often either one or the other. Developing talent like Emerson Hyndman and Rubio Rubin, who already are on the books at European clubs, isn't available for events like the annual January camp. Games like next Wednesday’s represent their first and best chance to impress.
There's no established blueprint for the period following a World Cup. After finishing last in its group in 2006, the U.S. had a coaching situation to resolve and didn’t take the field again until the following January. In 2010, Bob Bradley scheduled four friendlies but didn't take too many chances until the fourth, when Juan Agudelo, Tim Ream, Mix Diskerud and Teal Bunbury made their debuts against South Africa. Jermaine Jones also earned his first U.S. cap that fall.
Klinsmann plans to play at least four exhibitions this time. The U.S. will host Ecuador on Oct. 10 in Hartford, Conn. and a second, unannounced team a few days later. The Americans then will travel to Dublin to meet Ireland on Nov. 18.
"Being basically past the World Cup in Brazil and a couple months of a break, we're really getting excited about what's going to happen over the next four years with the national team program — the senior level but also all the other levels," Klinsmann said. "It's huge. It's a very exciting picture that we have in front of ourselves."
Here’s a look at the first U.S. team of the 2018 World Cup cycle.
Goalkeepers: Cody Cropper (Southampton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
With Tim Howard taking a year-long break from international duty, the No. 1 job now is Guzan's to lose. He backed up Howard at both the 2010 and 2014 World Cups and has been starting at Villa for two years. Cropper, 21, manned the U.S. net at the 2013 U-20 World Cup.
Defenders: John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Greg Garza (Club Tijuana), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Puebla), Tim Ream (Bolton).
Klinsmann isn’t taking too many risks in back, where there’s plenty of experience, including four members of his World Cup team.
Cameron’s inclusion is a slight surprise after Stoke coach Mark Hughes told reporters this week that the defender would miss a couple of weeks with a muscle injury. Cameron has been linked with a move away from the English Premier League club; a right back at Stoke, he reportedly is frustrated with a lack of opportunity to play in central defense. He manned the middle for the U.S. against Ghana and Portugal at the World Cup before shifting into midfield in the round-of-16 contest against Belgium.
Tim Ream, who moved to England from the New York Red Bulls in January 2012, hasn’t played for the U.S. since 2011. Among the European-based players left off the squad are outside backs Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest) and Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City). The pair has played a combined 43 minutes for Klinsmann.
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Brek Shea (Stoke City).
Bedoya, with 32 caps at age 27, is the elder statesman of the bunch, while Diskerud, who made the World Cup team but didn’t see the field, is the best bet to start centrally. Green, 19, has made the 18-man squad for just one of Bayern's three official matches this season and hasn't played. But there aren’t any questions about the teenager’s readiness for international duty following his goal against Belgium in Salvador.
Hyndman and Shea are on opposite trajectories in England. Hyndman, 18, already has started twice for Championship struggler Fulham. The central midfielder is the grandson of long-time FC Dallas coach Schellas Hyndman. Shea, who scored the CONCACAF Gold Cup clincher last summer, is in limbo as he looks for an exit from Stoke.
Klinsmann did not call up Sacha Kljestan, a veteran box-to-box midfielder with 46 caps to his credit. Kljestan, 28, has lost his starting spot at Anderlecht and still has a couple of days to make a move before the transfer deadline. He’s been linked to potential destinations in both MLS and Europe. Klinsmann may have omitted Kljestan to allow him to focus on his future, or it may be a signal that the Californian has exhausted his national team chances.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Joe Gyau (Borussia Dortmund II), Jordan Morris (Stanford), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht), Bobby Wood (1860 Munich)
Klinsmann's forward corps has scored a combined 23 international goals and has 72 senior caps; Altidore has all 23 goals and 71 of those caps. It's an untested group, to say the least. Altidore will be eager to make his mark after a tough 2013-14 season at Sunderland and after missing almost the entire World Cup with a hamstring injury.
Rubin, 18, played with the Portland Timbers academy and was part of U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency program before moving to the Netherlands last year. He recently signed a four-year contract with Utrecht and started the Eredivisie win over Willem II on Aug. 17.
There's a bit of hype surrounding Morris as well, but the difference between the Pac-10 and the Dutch first division is vast. Nevetheless, Klinsmann likes what he sees.
"We have watched Jordan through our youth national teams and in the Development Academy for the last couple of years, and he is a very promising player," the coach said. "We saw him during our two weeks at Stanford for the World Cup preparation camp [in May] and also from his play with U-23 team in the Bahamas [this month], and we felt like this was a good opportunity to introduce him to the senior team."
Morris tallied six goals and seven assists for the Cardinal last fall and netted one in four matches with the Sounders' U-23 team this summer.
Club circumstances and injury robbed Klinsmann of some more established talent. Agudelo remains a free agent and is searching for a home, while Aron Johannsson (groin) and Terrence Boyd (knee) are unavailable. Klinsmann doesn't seem concerned.
"Winning games as a national team program gives you credibility and gives you confidence," he said. "So you want to win in the Czech Republic, but at the same time, you want to experiment. You want to take some risks to introduce young players, players that haven’t proven yet what quality they have."
The Czechs, who failed to qualify for the World Cup, will be approaching next week's match with a different mindset. Six days after playing the U.S., coach Pavel Vrba's team will open its Euro 2016 qualifying campaign against the visiting Netherlands, bronze medalists in Brazil. They’re joined in Group A by Turkey, Latvia, Iceland and Kazakhstan.
Here’s the Czech squad:
Goalkeepers: David Bicík (Sparta Prague), Petr Cech (Chelsea), Tomás Vaclík (Basel).
Defenders: Pavel Kaderábek (Sparta Prague), Michal Kadlec (Fenerbahçe), David Limbersky (Viktoria Plzen), Václav Procházka (Viktoria Plzen), Daniel Pudil (Watford), Radim Reznik (Viktoria Plzen), Marek Suchy (Basel).
Midfielders: Vladimír Darida (Freiburg), Borek Dockal (Sparta Prague), Tomás Horava (Viktoria Plzen), Petr Jirácek (Hamburger SV), Daniel Kolár (Viktoria Plzen), Ladislav Krejcí (Sparta Prague), Milan Petrzela (Viktoria Plzen), Václav Pilar (Viktoria Plzen), Tomás Rosicky (Arsenal).
Forward: Matej Vydra (Watford).