With a focus on players who “have done so much for the national team program that they understand exactly now what this is all about,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Saturday unveiled the 23-man squad that will play Mexico on Oct. 10 for CONCACAF’s berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup.
The playoff between the past two continental champs is a mammoth match for the Americans, who finished a miserable fourth in this summer’s Gold Cup. A victory next week at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, will help erase that stain and likely will quiet the questions surrounding the U.S.’s progress under Klinsmann. The eight-team Confederations Cup offers the only opportunity outside the World Cup to play teams from beyond CONCACAF in official competition, as well as a sneak peek at Russia a year in advance.
With so much at stake, Klinsmann is relying on experienced, in-form athletes. The 23 players named Saturday were pulled from a 35-man preliminary roster submitted in mid-September. Defenders Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks, midfielder Mix Diskerud and forward Aron Jóhannsson are the most prominent players who failed to make the cut.
Klinsmann called the playoff “a game that for the next two or three years to come is probably the biggest game,” the U.S. will play. The manager, who boasts a 5-0-5 all-time mark against Mexico as a player or coach, made it clear that the result may impact the national team’s long-term trajectory. It very well may mark a threshold between eras.
“I think it’s really an interesting moment now because you have a core group of players that are kind of running out of time and I just want them to just embrace that moment,” Klinsmann said. “All these guys in their thirties, they need to realize, ‘You know what? I may not be getting these opportunities any more. This is it. We better take that trophy.’ However it looks like, we’ve got to go and get this thing. This is really about chemistry and getting the group together and making it a really special atmosphere the whole week leading into the Rose Bowl moment.”
Here’s a closer look at Klinsmann’s team, which will gather next week for training in Southern California:
Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Klinsmann already has anointed Guzan the starter against Mexico. Howard and Rimando will push the Aston Villa man in practice and will provide sure-handed relief if necessary. In March 2013, Guzan shut out Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in a World Cup qualifier.
Cut: Bill Hamid
Ventura Alvarado (Club América), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City)
Gonzalez is the most surprising omission from the roster. The LA Galaxy veteran did well at the 2014 World Cup and played every minute in each of the four most recent matches against Mexico, during which the U.S. yielded only two goals combined. He’s come through before in big games against El Tri, but Klinsmann felt there were other defenders in better form.
“The competition is very, very tight,” the manager said. “Not having Omar Gonzalez or Mix Diskerud on this roster, for example, is not because they are not good enough. It’s just because you see another player that is better in their position right now in this specific moment. Those are always tough decisions that a coach has to make.”
John Brooks, who Klinsmann preferred at the Gold Cup, has been battling injury since playing for the U.S. in the Sept. 4 friendly against Peru (first a thigh, now an ankle). His absence, along with Gonzalez’s, leaves Alvarado, Besler and Cameron at the top of the center back depth chart.
Alvarado had a rough Gold Cup and spent most of September on the bench at América, but Klinsmann remains a big fan of the 23-year-old.
Klinsmann has said that his top choices at outside back are Beasley, who’s been capped just twice since the World Cup, and Johnson. Spector, whose brief appearance in the 4-1 loss to Brazil on Sept. 8 was his first in a U.S. shirt in more than three years, has earned another call-up. Along with Tim Ream and Brad Evans, Spector can play in several spots along the back line.
Cut: John Brooks, Greg Garza, Omar Gonzalez
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Klinsmann has invested a lot of energy and minutes in Diskerud, who’s demonstrated an ability to make the sort of play that changes a game but hasn’t had a consistent impact this season with New York City FC. He’s a surprising omission from the 23-man team but was always unlikely to start against Mexico.
Bradley and Beckerman have started in the middle in the past two USA-Mexico games, during which Klinsmann has deployed a four-man, diamond midfield. But Jones’s return gives the coach myriad additional options.
Zusi and Bedoya have more experience, but Yedlin finally has broken through at Sunderland and offers more speed and danger on the dribble on the flank.
Zusi, arguably the group’s most comfortable player on set pieces, just helped Sporting KC win the U.S. Open Cup, while the versatile Bedoya has been starting regularly at Nantes.
The midfield alignment, and how Klinsmann apportions the playmaking duties between Bradley and Clint Dempsey, will be a huge factor against Mexico.
Cut: Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud, Alfredo Morales, Lee Nguyen
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Dempsey remains the national team’s most consistent scoring threat. He has nine international goals this year, more than twice as many as an other U.S. player. Altidore (four goals) still possesses a unique and vital skill set and Zardes has emerged as Klinsmann’s most promising new player. Wondolowski, meanwhile, keeps chugging along. He’s MLS’s leading U.S.-eligible scorer, again, and likely will be an option off the bench if the hosts need a late goal.
Jóhannsson has been dealing with a groin issue, according to reports. Klinsmann said the Werder Bremen forward “is not 100%.” Stanford University junior Jordan Morris, who scored his first senior international goal against Mexico in April, is currently playing in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament with the U.S. U-23 team. He was named to the playoff preliminary roster as cover for a potential injury.
Cut: Alan Gordon, Aron Jóhannsson, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood
Mexico, meanwhile, has unveiled a 25-man team that will be reduced to 23 publicly on Monday. Among the names listed by interim coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti are Galaxy forward Giovani dos Santos and Gold Cup MVP Andrés Guardado, whose availability is in question thanks to an ankle injury suffered on Sept. 15. PSV Eindhoven originally said that the midfielder would miss four to six weeks, which would rule him out of the Oct. 10 playoff. But his inclusion may indicate that Guardado is winning his race against time.
Veteran Rafa Márquez also is on the list despite the groin injury he suffered while playing for Hellas Verona in Italy. Goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, the Gold Cup starter, has missed out.
All seven of El Tri's players who have participated in this season's Champions League group stage, including Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, are among the players in the mix.
Here is Mexico's roster in full:
GOALKEEPERS: Moisés Muñoz (América), Alfredo Talavera (Toluca), Jonathan Orozco (Monterrey)
DEFENDERS: Rafael Márquez (Hellas Verona), Diego Reyes (Real Sociedad), Miguel Herrera (Pachuca), Héctor Moreno (PSV), José Arturo Rivas (Tigres), Paul Aguilar (América), Israel Jiménez (Tigres), Miguel Layún (Porto), Jorge Torres Nilo (Tigres)
MIDFIELDERS: José Juan Vázquez (León), Jonathan Dos Santos (Villarreal), Héctor Herrera (Porto), Carlos Esquivel (Toluca), Andrés Guardado (PSV), Javier Aquino (Tigres), Carlos Peña (León), Jesús Corona (Porto)
FORWARDS: Javier Hernández (Bayer Leverkusen), Carlos Vela (Real Sociedad), Oribe Peralta (América), Raúl Jiménez (Benfica), Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy)