Sacha Kljestan will make his return to the U.S. national team after a long absence. (Armando Franca/AP)
U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann promised a first-choice squad for this month’s pair of World Cup qualifiers, even though the Americans are already through to Brazil. On Sunday he delivered to the best of his ability.
Michael Bradley (ankle), Clint Dempsey (hamstring) and Fabian Johnson (ankle) are injured and unavailable, but the rest of Klinsmann’s 20-man roster paints a pretty clear picture of the top of the U.S. depth chart.
Since securing qualification with last month’s win over Mexico, Klinsmann has said on multiple occasions that he’s serious about winning the Oct. 11 game vs. Jamaica and the Oct. 15 finale in Panama. He stressed the importance of those matches again on Sunday.
“We want to finish qualifying on a high note and prove a point in our region,” he told U.S. Soccer’s website. “We don’t view these games as the end of World Cup qualifying. For us, it’s the start of preparations for the World Cup, and therefore we have to continue to raise the bar.”
The absence of Bradley, Dempsey and Johnson obviously ended any chance of a World Cup dress rehearsal. But there’s still plenty to figure out as the list of 23 players that will go to Brazil continues to take shape.
“We always got challenged over the last two years with injuries and yellow cards, and we always made the best out of it, and the group that came in did a fantastic job. Now in this case not having Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey is a tough one to swallow, but at the same time it gives other players an opportunity to step in,” Klinsmann said. “Everything we do now sets the tone for summer of 2014, and therefore it’s important the players understand this is serious business. We want to see an improvement of the entire squad, and we want to see competition in every spot.”
Klinsmann also promised he wouldn’t be worried about the MLS schedule and he followed through there as well, pulling the likes of Landon Donovan and Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy), Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), and Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City) away from their teams during a heated playoff race.
As Klinsmann said, qualifying remains “serious business”.
Here’s a look at his team:
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
No surprises here, and it will be no surprise if this is the trio that heads to Brazil next summer.
“With the goalkeepers, we have one of the best situations in the world,” Klinsmann said.
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy).
Many were hoping that Klinsmann would use the final two qualifiers to cap-tie Hertha Berlin center back John Brooks, who made his U.S. debut in the August friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the 20-year-old suffered an elbow injury that ruled him out.
Evans missed the September qualifiers but likely remains the first choice at right back, especially considering the issues facing the absent Steve Cherundolo (knee) and Michael Parkhurst (lack of playing time). Geoff Cameron continues to play right back for Stoke, but Klinsmann hasn’t deployed the former Houston Dynamo man out wide since the spring.
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).
Alejandro Bedoya has emerged out of a group of skillful outside midfielders that also includes the likes of Joe Corona and Jose Torres and now appears to have a very good shot at Klinsmann’s World Cup 23.
In Bradley’s absence, Sacha Kljestan makes his return to the national team. He’s played only three times for the U.S. this year (one start), despite his status and performance with Belgian champion Anderlecht. Klinsmann addressed Kljestan’s situation on Sunday:
“He proves week in and week out his qualities. He’s a little bit unlucky in our environment because he has Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley in central midfield roles ahead of him,” the coach said.
“Because of the fact that we rotated other players through to give them playing time, sometimes he was there and sometimes not. From his perspective, that is disappointing and a little bit bitter to swallow, but he also understands the competition there. When you look at the consistency he has built over the last few years, that speaks highly about him. He deserves to be back in this group.”
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders).
Herculez Gomez is back on the field for Club Tijuana and had a hat trick in his first game following knee surgery. But the veteran forward –- once an almost automatic starter for Klinsmann for about a year -– now has fallen behind Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd. Gomez won’t have the chance to overhaul either of them this month.
Klinsmann did offer his support to Altidore, who’s yet to find the net in an English Premier League game for struggling Sunderland:
“I’m personally very, very happy with how Jozy is coming along in the Premier League so far,” Klinsmann said. “Yes, he hasn’t scored the goals yet that he expects from himself. But I watch his games and he’s high energy and he’s a handful. He challenges back lines, and he’s often by himself and the support is not what it should be. He’s already been through a coaching change, which is not easy to digest. I see that jump to the Premier League being very positive. He challenges himself in a difficult environment and it’s coming along. He just needs to be patient, and his goals will come.”