Friday August 26th, 2016

If it feels like it’s been a while since we heard from the U.S. national team, that’s in part because it has been—Jurgen Klinsmann and Co. rarely go more than two months without a game or camp—and in part because so much has happened in the meantime. The American men aren’t often so far from the spotlight for this long.

Since the whistle blew at the conclusion of the Copa América Centenario bronze medal game on June 25, Lionel Messi missed a penalty kick, retired, then unretired from international football. Cristiano Ronaldo coached Portugal to the European crown, and Neymar kept his composure while Hope Solo lost hers.

Individual U.S. players made the news, but for reasons concerning club rather than country. Brad Guzan, Alejandro Bedoya and DeAndre Yedlin were among those climbing through the transfer window. Speculation swirled about whether Clint Dempsey and Sigi Schmid could coexist in Seattle and over Christian Pulisic’s future in Dortmund. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones got hurt. Jozy Altidore got healthy.

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The biggest national team story of the past two months was a non-story. Is Klinsmann being pursued by the English FA? Is he the favorite to succeed Roy Hodgson? Is U.S. Soccer ready to cut him loose? It’s all come down to the cosmopolitan former Tottenham star and the no-nonsense Sam Allardyce! But what about Arsène Wenger?

Thanks for the attention, British press, but no.

It’s clearly time for some substance. And that substance is coming in the form of a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers on September 2 and 6. Klinsmann, who hasn’t worked with his players in two months, won’t have the luxury of easing back into rhythm with a friendly or two. CONCACAF’s semifinal round of qualifying is concluding, and the Americans (2-1-1) still aren’t guaranteed passage to the Hexagonal.

It’s hard to imagine the wheels falling off against Caribbean opponents like St. Vincent & The Grenadines (0-4-0) and Trinidad & Tobago (3-0-1), but this isn’t the time to take chances. Klinsmann almost surely will select the best team available and based on his comments following the Copa América, that means we’ll likely see many of the same faces who finished fourth in June.

Soccer success almost always is in the eye of the beholder. Come in anywhere between first and last, and the final verdict necessarily depends on context and expectation. On the surface, the Americans’ Copa performance was relatively cut and dried. They lost to Argentina and Colombia (twice), two of the top three teams in the world according to FIFA’s ranking, and beat Ecuador, Paraguay and Costa Rica—as they should have at home. In advancing to the semifinals and getting pounded once they got there, the U.S. proved to be what we thought they were: decent, but not elite.

Reasonable people can wonder if they should be closer to challenging and beating the top teams, which Klinsmann said was his goal. But there’s little uncertainty about where the U.S. currently stands on the global landscape. And for the manager, cementing that status after a disappointing, rough-and-tumble 2015 represented success.

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“Reaching the [Copa] final four, reaching that goal, is huge,” Klinsmann said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A a few days following the consolation game loss. “Our players now see that we got a lesson from Argentina in the semifinal, but also that if they raise their own game to another level or two or three levels higher from what they’re used to playing in CONCACAF, things are doable … The learning curve we came through in this tournament was tremendous, and you have to give our team a huge compliment for the way they played.”

So expect that curve to continue. Klinsmann likely will name a squad on Sunday that includes most of the available men who played in the Copa, and if anything it’s almost surely a team in significant better psychological shape than it was at the beginning of the year. And he’ll almost surely announce more than 23 players. The invitees will gather Sunday and Monday in Jacksonville, where the Americans will face Trinidad on September 6. But first they’ll travel to St. Vincent, and they’ll do so in multiple aircraft by way of Barbados (St. Vincent doesn’t have a runway that can handle a larger plane).

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The logistics should be more challenging on paper than the Vincy Heat, who the Americans dispatched by a 6-1 score in November. But the U.S. has struggled in the Caribbean before. At this stage of qualifying four years ago, they lost at Jamaica and needed a 90th-minute goal from Eddie Johnson to beat Antigua & Barbuda. If the U.S. fails to secure three points next week, Group C will go down to the final day. Even if the Americans triumph in St. Vincent, a Guatemala (2-2-0) win or tie against Trinidad would leave the race for the two Hex berths unresolved. That would leave everything to play for in Jacksonville.

Who stays with the team after St. Vincent, who heads back to their club and who comes in will depends on the results. U.S. and Trinidad victories on September 2 would seal advancement for both, giving Klinsmann a bit of leeway ahead of their meeting four days later.

Klinsmann’s tough decisions will come at the edges of the roster.

Guzan didn’t do anything at Copa América to lose the starting job in net, but he’s only played two games since—both within the last five days for his new club, Middlesbrough—while Tim Howard has been sharp for the Colorado Rapids. Copa colossus John Brooks, Yedlin, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron (although he’s been on the bench for Stoke City) are potential starters in back. Omar Gonzalez may have done enough at Pachuca to force a recall. D.C. United’s Steve Birnbum remains in the frame as well and veteran Matt Besler returned to action last weekend after a month out with an injured knee. That’s the defensive core.

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Most of the uncertainty is in central midfield. Bradley is suspended for the St. Vincent game thanks to yellow card accumulation and Jones (knee) hasn’t played since July 4. Colorado coach Pablo Mastroeni said Wednesday that Jones remained “day-to-day … with a little bit of the pain around that joint and the LCL,” according to The Denver Post.

Klinsmann will have Copa veterans Kyle Beckerman, Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe, Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi to choose from, as well as Perry Kitchen and Pulisic to consider. The former has only four caps, however, while the latter may be on the move from Dortmund. Klinsmann will have to decide whether to call up Pulisic as the transfer window closes. If there’s roster turnover between games, the depth afforded by the likes of Danny Williams, Lee Nguyen, Ethan Finlay, among others, will be helpful.

Everything look was looking straightforward up top until the Seattle Sounders announced Friday that the in-form Dempsey (five goals in four games) is undergoing evaluations for an irregular heartbeat. With Dempsey left out to tend to much more pressing needs and priorities than soccer, Bobby Wood and Altidore will be left atop the forward depth chart. Wood earned a summer move to Hamburger SV and Altidore has been a beast since returning to the field for Toronto FC, scoring in four straight games (and five of his last six) for the new Eastern Conference leader.

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Klinsmann and his staff spent some of the past two months checking in with Terrence Boyd, Josh Gatt and Joe Gyau, all attackers returning to their European clubs from injury. Julian Green is sticking with the Bayern Munich senior team for now and Jordan Morris is holding his own as a rookie facing significant expectations in Seattle. Aron Jóhannsson is on his way back with Werder Bremen and Lynden Gooch (who’s also eligible to play for England and Ireland) is starting in midfield for Sunderland. Matt Miazga, Emerson Hyndman and Fafa Picault were in camp before the Copa América. In MLS, Kellyn Acosta has gotten a test of the international big time and Keegan Rosenberry is turning heads.

There are intriguing players in the pipeline, but they’ll more likely get their chance later this year or in January camp. The stakes are too high over the next two weeks, and Klinsmann appears set to remain reliant on his Copa América semifinalists.

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