WASHINGTON, D.C.—It made perfect sense that Andrew Wooten, the 25-year-old SV Sandhausen forward and only uncapped player on the bus, would be carrying water down to the field as the U.S. national team commenced training here at American University. Newcomers are expected to help with logistics.
But World Cup heroes are not. Yet there was Tim Howard, renowned for his 104 caps, an FA Cup triumph and those 15 saves in Salvador, Brazil, holding a full plastic bag in his left hand and helping Wooten lug a blue cooler with his right. Monday's U.S. practice was Howard’s first following his 14-month international sabbatical, and he kicked it off by assisting the rookie with the supplies.
There’s no entitlement or ego at Camp Klinsmann, especially this week. A month removed from its worst CONCACAF Gold Cup finish in 15 years and a month out from the winner-take-all Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico, the U.S. is preparing for a pair of upcoming friendlies focused solely on the bottom line.
Hard work is essential and humility, thanks to July’s results, will be key. Klinsmann can’t afford to be patient or to play favorites, and veterans will have to earn their place.
The manager has a few days of practice and then 180 minutes against Peru (Friday in Washington) and Brazil (Sept. 8 in Foxborough, Massachusetts) to narrow down his team and tactics for the Rose Bowl showdown with El Tri.
“This is really now time for the guys to make a really strong impression that they understand the situation we’re in because of what happened in the Gold Cup. These games are not about developing things for the future. This is about proving a point towards the Mexico game,” Klinsmann said when unveiling his roster on Sunday.
“We will just want to make it very, very intense and competitive from the first day on in training, so the veterans need to set the tone and they need to understand that there's a high energy there. The ones that were not a part of the Gold Cup … they need to prove a point now. This is really now about truly competing.”
The players seemed to get the message as most of the team (Aron Jóhannsson, John Brooks and William Yarbrough were en route—their clubs had games on Sunday) gathered Monday morning at Reeves Field.
“If Jurgen has said that these friendlies are more important, he’s correct,” defender Matt Besler said. “That’s how it should be. We have a very, very big match coming up in about a month, so these two friendlies, we have to take seriously to try and get ready for that Mexico game.”
Said Jermaine Jones, “Of course we will try everything to win both [friendlies], and we concentrate in both games and hopefully we don’t make mistakes, so we can go forward to the Mexico game. It’s like a final and we want to win that.”
Besler, Jones and Howard are among a group of U.S. veterans who missed the Gold Cup and now will be working to re-establish themselves as starters. In their favor: they’re not stained by July’s fourth-place finish. Working against them: a potential lack of continuity and chemistry with those who’ve been with the national team more consistently.
Howard’s most recent U.S. game was the World Cup round-of-16 loss to Belgium. Besler and Jones, who were starters in Brazil, haven’t been capped since February. Geoff Cameron hasn’t played for Klinsmann since last fall. The defender sat out the Gold Cup because his club, Stoke City, preferred he take the summer off after a few nagging injuries and a couple years of continuous action. Midfielder Danny Williams played his way back into the national team picture before missing the Gold Cup, and Jozy Altidore was sent home from the CONCACAF championship with a hurt hamstring.
It’s a lot for Klinsmann to work through, and there’s not much give in the schedule. He’ll have Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey for the Brazil game only and has a glut of defensive permutations to consider, from sticking with the Ventura Alvarado-John Brooks center back pairing that started most of the Gold Cup to trying something brand new. This week, at least, those permutations could include playing a central defender on the flank. Greg Garza is the only pure outside back in camp. That means Cameron, Tim Ream or Michael Orozco might be deployed out wide against Peru and Brazil. DeAndre Yedlin is an option as well. Meanwhile, there are seven center backs on the roster.
“Competition is good. It pushes guys along. It helps the team get stronger, and that’s what we need right now,” said Besler, who added that there were no lingering issues following a public debate over January camp fitness that took place between the player, Klinsmann and Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes.
"I think everybody's moved on from that. It was a long time ago," Besler said. "We've had conversations–private conversations. Like I said, I'm very excited to be back with this group and hopefully I can show I have a lot to offer."
When asked if the U.S. needed to solidify its revolving back four by the conclusion of the Brazil game, Guzan said, “Obviously, the coaches will look at that. That’s up to them to decide.”
He was fine with the competition for places, however, both from Howard and among the defenders in front of him.
“You always have someone either pushing you, or you’re pushing someone else. That’s the nature of professional sports,” said Guzan, who won the Gold Cup’s golden glove award. “I’ve been in this business long enough to know that, and being in Europe, where it’s obviously a little more cutthroat than here in the U.S., you develop a thick skin and you develop a strong mentality and a strong will to succeed. So nothing changes in that sense.”
U.S. soccer might not be as cutthroat as it is in England, but there was plenty of criticism and disappointment following last month’s Gold Cup semifinal loss to Jamaica. Jones, who’s recovering from hernia surgery, said Monday that the spotlight became brighter after the World Cup, and that the heat certainly is on now thanks to July’s setback.
“It started already after the World Cup, when we showed a good World Cup. Every game after the World Cup, people were looking at us different than before,” said Jones, who went 62 minutes for the New England Revolution this weekend. “Then you play Germany [in June]. You play Holland and all that stuff, and of course people get looking forward to the Gold Cup and then you don’t win it and people start to—and I think it's their right to—they write something and they talk about something and talk about players. But now, yeah, it’s time for everybody who got called in to step up and show in these two games that he owns the spot against Mexico."