WASHINGTON — Michael Bradley was the last U.S. player to leave the media mixed zone Tuesday night at RFK Stadium. And the last thing he talked about before walking alone down the dark field-level concourse, checking his phone as he took the first few steps on his familiar journey from country back to club, was the psychology of that transition.
National team staff and fans already are looking ahead to November, when the U.S. will open the final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying tournament with massive games against Mexico and Costa Rica. Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with New Zealand concluded a 10-day camp that represented U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s final chance to get a first-hand look at his team—a handful of members of his core and a handful of players on the fringe—before selecting his qualifying roster. He now has more than three weeks until he must do so. There’s time to contemplate and consider the options.
His players don’t have that leeway. For them, there’s got to be a balance. Those November qualifiers are big. Good results would set the U.S. on the path to Russia. A bad start would ruin the momentum generated over the past few months. But there’s also a lot happening between now and Columbus that already was on Bradley’s mind.
“It’s only natural to have an idea over the next few weeks what’s coming. It’s an exciting few weeks,” he said. “I think when we’re back together in a few weeks in Columbus, I think there will be four teams left in MLS, if I’m not mistaken (he’s not). The European guys head back and have a few weeks of important games. MLS guys head back and essentially, your season gets played in the next four weeks. And obviously when we meet in Columbus, the biggest games we’ve played in a while are up. It’s an exciting time of year.”
Whether or not they impressed Klinsmann in training, during the 2-0 win over Cuba or on Tuesday in Washington, the players have plenty to do between now and November. As Bradley said, in less than a month the MLS field will shrink from 20 teams to four. Bradley and Jozy Altidore are paid a lot of money by Toronto FC to lead a reversal of that club’s fortunes. TFC has never won a playoff game. Playmaker Sacha Kljestan, who’s thrust himself back into the U.S. picture after two years in exile, heads back to a New York Red Bulls squad also desperate for postseason success.
For the European players, big challenges await. Julian Green scored goals against Cuba and New Zealand, but still hasn’t played a Bundesliga minute for Bayern Munich (he did get 24 in a DFB Pokal game in August). Lynden Gooch added a fearless spark off the bench at RFK, but he’s lost his starting spot at English Premier League basement-dweller Sunderland. Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath staked his claim to the No. 3 spot with a debut shutout of Cuba and returned to Norway knowing Molde FK is one point out of a Europa League berth with four games remaining. Perry Kitchen, who started Friday, is the new captain at Scotland’s Heart of Midlothian. The other “new” defensive midfielder in camp, Danny Williams, heads back to a Reading team in the mix for a Premier League promotion playoff spot.
What happens over the next few weeks will play a significant role in how Klinsmann prepares for Mexico and Costa Rica. He said following Tuesday’s tie that he still needed to choose “what system we want to play,” against El Tri. That could determine whether Kljestan, for example, gets the chance to continue his international resurgence. Or perhaps Kljestan can determine that for Klinsmann with a strong few weeks. Injuries and health issues facing the likes of Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones demonstrate how little is in a national team manager’s control. What this camp did for Klinsmann was provide additional options. That can make things complicated, but he said it's a good problem to have.
“It’s been a good 10 days, because we wanted to get some answers for a couple things heading toward the Mexico clash and I think we found a couple very interesting answers,” Klinsmann said. “I don’t think we made it harder for ourselves, because we needed to see these players coming in, and other players weren’t available [for call-ups] as well. That’s the opportunity for somebody coming in and can give you a real positive picture, a surprise, like Julian Green. Then you rotate after game one [in Cuba] and bring in other options as well. You see them exactly where they’re at right now.
“It will not be easy to choose those 23 [for the qualifiers], but it was good that we did it that way.”
In back, Tim Howard may have the edge over Brad Guzan in net if the latter doesn’t get more minutes at Middlesbrough. The starting defense may be in flux as well. Klinsmann said right back DeAndre Yedlin “struggled” in each of the past two U.S. camps. Michael Orozco played the position to start Friday’s friendly as Klinsmann deployed Yedlin as a winger. Geoff Cameron and John Brooks, who started against Cuba then returned to their clubs, likely will remain the first-choice center backs but Klinsmann had high praise for Sporting Kansas City’s Matt Besler on Tuesday.
Whether Kljestan can replicate the impact he had on much smaller teams against Mexico and Costa Rica is the primary midfield question facing Klinsmann over the next month. Kljestan was outstanding against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago in September’s qualifiers and continued to look sharp over the past week. But if Jones returns or Klinsmann feels there isn’t room for both Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya, for example, the Red Bulls’ catalyst may once again be on the outside looking in.
“He’s absolutely under consideration for Mexico. He took this opportunity in just the perfect way,” Klinsmann said of Kljestan.
The 31-year-old couldn’t get a call-up when he was playing a more defensive role for Belgian power Anderlecht but now, as the MLS assists leader in New York, he’s caught Klinsmann’s eye again. Tuesday’s game was Kljestan’s 50th cap, but it also felt kind of like he’s starting over.
“I’ve got a second chance,” Kljestan said. “I had to work really hard to get back here and now I’m not going to let it slip through my fingers … It’s almost like this is a second chance at a national team career. I have a lot more determination now and a lot more motivation. Obviously, I’ve missed a couple World Cups. So now I’m going to push my hardest to do everything I can.”
Up front, a healthy Altidore is almost sure to start next month. Bobby Wood didn’t really impress in Cuba (few did on that rutted field), but his body of work over the past year gives him an edge in Dempsey’s absence. Whether Klinsmann opts for the 4-4-2 he used with some success at the Copa América Centenario or the 4-3-3 he selected Tuesday will shape his selections. Christian Pulisic also was ineffective in Havana but has undeniable talent and composure, and Klinsmann said Tuesday that Gooch is “fearless” and a “very interesting character.”
Green is the wild card. From World Cup scorer to absent afterthought to man of the moment, no one made more progress at this camp than Green. Klinsmann will have to decide whether it was enough.
Klinsmann praised Green’s increased maturity, confidence and strength. “It’s really nice to see his development,” the manager said. But making an impression at Bayern matters.
“Maybe we’ll send some people to watch his training sessions [at Bayern],” Klinsmann said. “Just to see how active and involved he is.”
Green made his U.S. debut against Mexico back in the spring of 2014. He said Tuesday that November’s qualifier “is a special game for everyone.” But he knows his goals against Cuba and New Zealand will carry only so much weight.
“If I work hard, I will get my chance here. I know that. So when I’m here, I have to give my best and I think I did that very well,” he said. “Now I scored two goals, and that’s what you guys like to see. That’s it. Now I keep focusing on my club. I work hard every day and we’ll see what happens … [Klinsmann and I] don’t talk every day but we’re always in touch and I know he’s watching me. That’s it. I have to do my job in my club. I have to work hard there.”
Klinsmann wanted options. He wanted competition for places, depth and flexibility. The past 10 days gave him a bit more of that. Now, as his players transition to more immediate hurdles, the coach must figure out how to tackle the bigger games to come.