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Call it the "Dark Knight Effect," this belief or conviction that players on the fringe are more appealing than faltering incumbents—even if they lack the appropriate experience or credentials.
“It’s almost like NFL football, where a lot of fans always want the back-up quarterback if the starting one is struggling a bit,” said U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski, a one-time underdog who now has lived long enough to see himself become the villain.
Speaking recently on SI’s Planet Fútbol podcast, Wondolowski added, “It’s kind of a Catch-22, the grass-is-always-greener kind of thing that can get people in trouble if you buy into it and believe it.”
Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t buying in.
The national team coach has had two years to introduce a bit of new blood to the team that finished 15th at the 2014 World Cup, and there have been a few players who’ve stepped forward. Gyasi Zardes now is a regular, while Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, Jordan Morris, Steve Birnbaum and Ventura Alvarado have forced their way into the rotation. The likes of DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, who were unproven two years ago, have staked their claim as starters.
But Klinsmann is stopping there for the time being. For the most part, the class of 2014 remains in place despite last year’s failures at the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Confederations Cup playoff. Next month’s Copa América Centenario offers the fifth-year coach a unique opportunity to erase those stains and re-establish momentum heading toward the Hexagonal and then 2018. Considering its recent trajectory and the spotlight sure to shine on the hosts during the Copa, this is as close to a must-win summer as a non-World Cup summer can be. And Klinsmann is relying on veterans and players with whom he’s already comfortable to get it done.
The 40-man team features almost no newcomers and almost no shocks. The only real surprise is the exclusion of Orlando City’s Brek Shea, who’s been in the mix for minutes at left back. Klinsmann has maintained faith in Shea for several years and still hasn’t found a reliable replacement for DaMarcus Beasley, but the manager decided to re-introduce Eric Lichaj to the fold in an effort to find a solution.
The younger players on the 40-man squad have at least some national-team exposure.
Among the eight with fewer than five caps (including two goalkeepers), the only ones likely to see minutes at the Copa are Birnbaum and Christian Pulisic.
The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund playmaker may be new to the senior national team, but he’s obviously worth the exception.
Others who’ve caught the eye in recent months—from veterans like Sacha Kljestan, Dax McCarty, Mike Grella and C.J. Sapong to potential newcomers like Jorge Villafana, Sebastian Lletget, Fafa Picault, Jerome Kiesewetter Paul Arriola, Tim Parker, Christian Ramirez, Emerson Hyndman and Wil Trapp—will have to wait their turns. They’re tantalizing because they represent possibility beyond the familiar. But it’s the familiar that continues to hold the advantage.
It’s certainly fair to ask whether Wondolowski, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Tim Howard and others will be around in 2018. Other usual suspects may be past their peak or standing in the way of younger players with potential. Two years is quite a while in soccer terms, however, and during that time players will emerge and fade away, lose and then recapture form.
It’s that churn that Klinsmann seeks. He’s demonstrated that he doesn’t believe teams are built through comfort, chemistry and repetition, but rather through the cauldron of competition. Individuals break barriers, thus the team improves. In a must-win summer, a coach with something to prove will rely on players who’ve proven something to him.
Here’s a look at the 40-man provisional roster and who’s in position to make the final 23, which is due by May 20.
David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Howard and Guzan are locks, and the battle to start will be among the fiercest in camp, which is scheduled to start May 16. Everton coach Roberto Martinez’s decision to play Howard in his final two games at Goodison Park will give Klinsmann a look at where his World Cup starter is, and a potential excuse to give him the inside track if he does well.
Klinsmann loves Rimando, who demonstrated just last weekend that he’s still capable of the spectacular, but the 36-year-old is unlikely to play at the Copa so may lose out to a goalie who might make something out of the tournament experience. Bingham’s recent ascendancy makes him an easy option, although Horvath, who’s six years younger, likely has more long-term international potential.
Stock rising: David Bingham, Ethan Horvath
Stock falling: Nick Rimando
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club América), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)
Once again, the U.S. is stacked centrally and relatively weak on the wings. Several potential outside backs (Ream, Acosta, Evans, etc.) aren’t really outside backs. Barring injury, Besler, Brooks and Cameron are certain to get the call. The latter remains in contention to start despite Stoke City’s recent slide. Gonzalez, a World Cup starter, could wind up losing out to a more versatile defender like Birnbaum, Ream or Orozco. That will be a theme next month. Players who can handle more than one position will be valuable to a manager who likes to mix things up.
Despite his inconsistency, Castillo looks like the early favorite to start at left back. Copa opposition will prove to be much tougher than Guatemala, however. Perhaps Lichaj will impress, or perhaps Klinsmann will go against the recent tactical grain and put Johnson there. Although the Borussia Mönchengladbach man is more dangerous in midfield, deploying him at left back does give Klinsmann an opportunity to get something closer to a best 11 on the field.
Ream has played there as well and is better at the defensive basics than Castillo. Yedlin arguably is the easiest back four starter to pencil in. If he’s unable to go, Birnbaum, Ream or even Cameron probably would be a better choice than the uneven Chandler.
Stock rising: Matt Besler, John Brooks, Steve Birnbaum, Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream, DeAndre Yedlin
Stock falling: Kellyn Acosta, Ventura Alvarado, Timmy Chandler, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Miazga
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Bradley, Beckerman, Bedoya, Johnson and Jones will be at the Copa, giving Klinsmann plenty of steel and vision in midfield. What’s missing is the sort of nuanced creativity that might help the U.S. match up with the likes of Colombia and, if the Americans make the knockout rounds, heavyweights such as Brazil. Nagbe probably is the best option here, considering the relative strength of his two-way play, and Graham Zusi’s return to form makes him a versatile, experienced option out wide.
Although Zardes and Pulisic are listed as forwards, they’re also likely to play in withdrawn positions that could influence how Klinsmann deploys the midfield. That likely will leave Diskerud, Morales and Nguyen on the outside looking in. Kitchen and Williams also might fall victim to the numbers game in the middle.
Stock rising: Darlington Nagbe, Graham Zusi
Stock falling: Mix Diskerud, Perry Kitchen, Alfredo Morales, Danny Williams
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
There’s perhaps more competition along the U.S. front line then ever before and some painful cuts to be made. Wood and Morris are legitimate threats to earn serious minutes at the Copa, especially if Klinsmann sets the team up in a 4-2-3-1. They add speed and a nose for goal and shouldn’t feel overawed by the occasion.
Zardes has struggled from 18 yards and in but Klinsmann likes his approach, work rate and ability to stretch defenses. His experience and incumbency probably will be enough to give the LA Galaxy product the nod over the up-and-coming Finlay, who continues to impress. Klinsmann has too much invested in Zardes, but Finlay will be a factor in the fall.
Wondolowski is scoring at will again in San Jose. But like Rimando, he's a reserve who may have trouble hanging on. Wood and Morris offer athleticism and upside. Altidore and Dempsey remain the linchpins, but there now are players behind them showing signs that the churn Klinsmann covets may be reaching the very top of the U.S. depth chart.
Stock rising: Jordan Morris, Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood
Stock falling: Chris Wondolowski, Gyasi Zardes