It’s been two months since the U.S. national team finished fourth at the Copa América Centenario, but time hasn’t dimmed the accomplishment for coach Jurgen Klinsmann. On Sunday afternoon he named 19 of the 23 men who participated in that competition to the squad that will close out CONCACAF’s semifinal round of World Cup qualifying, and he would have invited more if possible.
This year’s leading international goal scorer (and last year’s), Clint Dempsey, will miss out while being evaluated by doctors following the diagnosis of an irregular heartbeat. The 33-year-old forward will be out of action for both the U.S. and the Seattle Sounders for an undetermined period. He’ll be joined on the qualifying sidelines by LA Galaxy attacker Gyasi Zardes, who was a late scratch after leaving Saturday night’s MLS game against Vancouver. Zardes had taken a hard, sliding tackle from the Whitecaps' Kendall Waston midway through the second half and is being evaluated by Galaxy staff.
Otherwise, apart from a few younger players Klinsmann would like to get a look at during this international window, the team aiming to clinch a spot in the Hexagonal is the team that took the field this summer. Midfielder Perry Kitchen and defender Edgar Castillo, neither of whom saw action at the Copa, are the only others excluded.
“We definitely think that the group that got fourth in the Copa América deserves a certain priority going on to the next World Cup qualifiers because they did tremendously well,” Klinsmann said. “This is a big stage, and they deserve to come back and confirm what they did in the tournament in these upcoming, very important World Cup qualifiers. We are preparing for these two games very seriously, with a lot of urgency because we want to finish off our group in first place if possible, and this group of players gets the chance to do that.”
The U.S. (2-1-1) will gather in Jacksonville on Sunday and Monday and then head to Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, for Friday’s game against the 0-4-0 Vincy Heat. The Americans then will head back to Jacksonville, where they’ll play Trinidad & Tobago (3-0-1) on Sept. 6. Klinsmann’s team is in good shape to finish in the top half of the four-team group, but unless both the U.S. and Trinidad win on Friday, the Americans will head into the finale needing the right result to cement its place in CONCACAF's final qualifying round.
So Klinsmann is taking no chances, and even has called in key players facing suspension (Michael Bradley) or still recovering from an injury (Jermaine Jones). The opposition might not be formidable, but the stakes are enormous.
“Our message for players coming into this camp for the two World Cup qualifiers is very clear: approach it with a lot of urgency,” he said.
Klinsmann named 26 players on Sunday but said he will take only 23 to St. Vincent. Bradley (yellow card accumulation) and defender Michael Orozco (ejected during Copa bronze medal game) are both suspended for Friday's match and will be among those left behind. If passage to the Hex is secured in St. Vincent, the manager may send a few players home. The slightly larger squad gives him a bit of leeway for what could be a tense and unpredictable finale.
Here’s a look at Klinsmann’s qualifying team:
Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough), Ethan Horvath (Molde FC), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids)
Guzan, the Copa América starter, appears to have maintained a claim on the No. 1 shirt after three consecutive starts for Middlesbrough, his new club. Playing time wasn’t guaranteed with former Barcelona netminder Víctor Valdés and incumbent Dimi Konstantopoulos in the fold. But an injury to the former helped open the door and Guzan has had the opportunity to shake off the summer rust. He shut out West Bromwich Albion on Sunday.
Howard has started just twice for the U.S. this year, but he’s been good for the Colorado Rapids and showed what he still can do with Friday’s spectacular penalty kick save on Real Salt Lake’s Javier Morales. Horvath continues to hold off MLS stalwarts like Nick Rimando, David Bingham and Bill Hamid for the third spot.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
Arguably the most surprising omission from the Copa roster, Liga MX champion Gonzalez has returned and very well could push Cameron for a starting spot alongside the imperious Brooks. Besler and Birnbaum provide reliable depth, while Johnson and Yedlin have established themselves as the clear choices at outside back—a position where there was considerable uncertainty last year.
Johnson still may be a better midfielder, but the U.S. has more depth further up the field. He came on as a substitute in Gladbach’s season opening 2-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday.
Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Caleb Stanko (FC Vaduz), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Klinsmann has a couple interesting choices to make assuming Jones (knee) isn’t ready to play on Friday. The veteran has been out of the Colorado Rapids’ lineup since early July. His inclusion is testament both to the importance of these upcoming games and to Klinsmann’s faith in the 34-year-old midfield powerhouse.
“We will take it one day at a time with him,” Klinsmann said.
Beckerman may be part of the player pool forever, and he’ll likely be deployed to do Beckerman-type things, giving Klinsmann’s creative players a bit more leeway to push forward. In Bedoya and Nagbe, the U.S. has the talent to carve open the likes of St. Vincent and Trinidad, while Pulisic’s promise is such that Klinsmann has brought him in despite rumors that the 17-year-old could be on the move from Dortmund.
The manager addressed that issue on Sunday.
“Every time you go into a national team qualifying window in early September is a bit tricky because FIFA has that rule to close the transfer window on August 31st,” he said. “Players who are not transferred before August 31st, or maybe are in jeopardy on not knowing where to go, bring that kind of atmosphere into the national team environment. So this is not ideal. We had this in the past where we had transfers done at the last moment and it was real difficult for players to focus on what is really important, meaning the game. So hopefully our players will be all set as quickly as possible over the next couple of days, knowing where their future takes them, we can focus fully on the World Cup qualifiers.”
He obviously has faith confidence in the teenager, who’s been far from overawed in either a U.S. shirt or at the Westfalenstadion.
Stanko, 23, is a relatively new name on the senior national team list (he went unused in the pre-Copa friendly vs. Puerto Rico) and will be brought in for evaluation. The defensive midfielder is unlikely to play. The Michigan native moved for Germany’s SC Freiburg in 2011 and now is on loan to Liechtenstein’s FC Vaduz, which plays across the border in the Swiss Super League.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Rubio Rubin (FC Utrecht), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
Dempsey will be missed, certainly, but there are goals to be found among the available forwards.
“Clint Dempsey has been back scoring and we wanted to have him here, but of course his health comes first,” Klinsmann said. “We’re thinking of Clint and hoping that he will be okay. With our other forwards, Jozy is back scoring. Jordan Morris is doing really well. Then we’ve had the European-based players Bobby Wood and Rubio Rubin starting their season right now. It looks good. Wondolowski is scoring as well … so that’s a good thing for us. We know our strikers are hungry for goals, and hopefully they can start with that right away in St. Vincent.”
Wood started off with his new club, HSV, where he left off in the spring, scoring in Bundesliga debut on Saturday. His rise to international starter status represents Klinsmann's greatest post-World Cup personnel success.
Altidore, who’s been tormented by hamstring injuries at the worst moments, has been strong for TFC in recent weeks and has four goals in his past five games. They may be less inclined than Dempsey to drop into midfield and look to create or facilitate, but that shouldn’t be much of a handicap against opposition that likely will play lower and more compact.
Morris has had a good rookie season and should be up to the challenge, and Wondolowski’s veteran influence ensures he remains in the picture. He has nine goals and two assists for San Jose this season.