At the end of this month, Jurgen Klinsmann’s unique tenure as U.S. national team coach and U.S. Soccer Federation technical director will feature an unprecedented twist. For the first time, a case could be made that the most important games, traditionally, won’t actually be the most important games.
On March 25 and 29, the U.S. will meet Guatemala in a pair of World Cup qualifiers. Nothing is more vital to a national team manager—and the U.S. manager in particular—than securing a spot in the sport’s biggest tournament. When soccer goes mainstream in this country, it’s because of the World Cup.
But the U.S. has advanced to seven straight, often with room to spare. The do-or-die qualifier is a rarity. And at this semifinal stage, where the Americans (1-0-1) are competing with unfancied Guatemala (1-1-0), Trinidad and Tobago (1-0-1) and St. Vincent (0-2-0) for one of two berths in the Hexagonal, there’s even more breathing room. The U.S. is on a 21-game unbeaten run (15-0-6) against Guatemala dating back to 1988 and with the right results in Guatemala City and Columbus, Klinsmann’s squad could even qualify for CONCACAF’s six-team final round with two games in hand. It should expect to get those results.
The U.S. Under-23 team is in a much different position. Its effort to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics now depends on the outcome of this month’s home-and-home series against Colombia, the runner-up in last year’s South American youth championship. Although the Olympic tournament pales in comparison to the World Cup, Klinsmann believes the experience is crucial for young professionals with international aspirations.
The success or failure of the U-23 team, which finished third in the CONCACAF qualifier this spring, also will reflect on Klinsmann’s term as technical director. The U-23s missed the Olympics four years ago. Throw in the senior team’s miserable 2015 Gold Cup and difficulties at the the U-17 level (they failed to qualify for the 2013 World Cup and played poorly at last year’s tournament), and the pressure on Klinsmann has increased. Five years in, there should be signs that his effort and ideology are taking root.
The U.S. U-23s will visit Colombia in Barranquilla on March 25 and then host the second leg at FC Dallas’s Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas on the 29th. The unheard-of scheduling conflict will force Klinsmann and his staff to make a few intriguing decisions. Central defenders John Brooks and Matt Miazga, right back DeAndre Yedlin and forward Jordan Morris are among the potential World Cup qualifying call-ups who are eligible to play in the Olympics.
The games against Colombia are do-or-die, leaving Klinsmann in the strange position of sacrificing depth at the senior level for the benefit of a junior side. It’s a decision that typically wouldn’t be considered, but the long-term ramifications now make it a near necessity. Klinsmann’s commitment to the Olympic cause was evident when he invited a handful of U-23s to the recent January camp at the expense of candidates who deserved some senior seasoning. The end result of that commitment will impact a generation of American players, as well as Klinsmann’s legacy.
Meanwhile, the senior team enters the upcoming qualifiers under a bit less pressure. The passage of time, along with the four points earned against St. Vincent and Trinidad and a relaxed January camp capped by two friendly wins, have eased the scrutiny and criticism that followed last fall’s failures. Most of Klinsmann’s key senior players are healthy and several are in good form. Although there are questions at a couple of positions, Klinsmann isn’t devoid of options.
With Tim Howard on the bench at Everton, Brad Guzan is the obvious choice to start against Guatemala. Guzan has had plenty of practice at relegation-threatened Aston Villa and was in net for a 4-0 win over Los Chapines last year. Although Brooks has been playing very well at Hertha Berlin, his absence shouldn’t be an issue along the back line.
World Cup veterans Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez will be available to play centrally. Outside back remains the most uncertain position on the U.S. roster, which may force Klinsmann to take Yedlin to Guatemala. Cameron can play on the right, but Klinsmann prefers the Stoke City veteran in the middle. Brek Shea, Tim Ream and Fabian Johnson are among the candidates to play on the left flank, although the latter has been doing so well in Borrusia Mönchengladbach’s midfield that it seems silly to use him elsewhere.
Jermaine Jones, now with the Colorado Rapids, will miss the qualifiers while serving his six-game MLS suspension. Although U.S. captain Michael Bradley has been playing deeper so far this season with Toronto FC, there’s no reason to believe that Klinsmann will ask him to focus on defense and possession against Guatemala. Klinsmann wants Bradley higher. Luckily for the manager, Kyle Beckerman is available to fill the No. 6 role.
If Klinsmann wants to field a more attacking formation, he could deploy the likes of Mix Diskerud, Darlington Nagbe or Lee Nguyen alongside Bradley. Johnson and Alejandro Bedoya are the likely starters out wide. Both have been outstanding in recent weeks. Johnson has eight goals this season for fourth-place Gladbach while Bedoya, who toyed with moving to MLS on a couple occasions over the past year, has scored four times in the past two months for Nantes.
Up front, Jozy Altidore likely is out with an injured hamstring (again), leaving Clint Dempsey as the attacking focal point. The up-and-coming Bobby Wood, who has six goals for Union Berlin since the start of February, is an almost certain call-up, as is Gyasi Zardes. Chris Wondolowski has started strong in San Jose and may earn another invite. Even with Altidore’s absence, Klinsmann may wish Zardes, 24, and Wood, 23, were just a bit younger. Wood missed the U-23 cutoff by only six weeks.
Klinsmann is expected to announce his teams this weekend. The senior and U-23 players will gather in South Florida and train before heading their separate ways next week, setting the stage for a stretch unlike any other in American soccer history.