The U.S. national team’s upcoming games against Scotland and Austria are no ordinary friendlies. They are “World Cup preparation matches,” according to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. That sounds like a big deal.
“They are serious. We are trying to bring in the strongest group possible,” he told U.S. Soccer’s website last week. “They key message is really we want to prove a point in Scotland and in Austria that we are on the right path. We want to play good football there and show them that we come to their countries and stadiums to compete. We are excited about these opportunities because we don’t have many left before training camp begins next May. Therefore, it’s going to be intense.”
Unfortunately for Klinsmann, the “strongest group possible” isn’t his strongest group. Landon Donovan is out with an injured left ankle that’s been bothering him since mid-September.
"Realistically, I’ve been told that I need six weeks of rest,” Donovan told reporters last month.
Now that the L.A. Galaxy’s season is over, he’ll get that rest. Donovan still has never started a game with Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley under Klinsmann. U.S. Soccer noted Monday that goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defenders Clarence Goodson and Edgar Castillo also are out with injuries.
Klinsmann also reduced the strength of his own squad after declining to call up MLS players whose teams are still active, as SI.com reported he would last week. The manager previously said, “We’re going to bring the best players into Scotland and Austria no matter where they play. … Because of MLS creating that window between their playoff games, that helps make our two games really exciting.”
Nevertheless, he acquiesced to the delight of the Houston Dynamo, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake (no Portland Timbers are in the U.S. picture). That means no Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Kyle Beckerman, Nick Rimando or Brad Davis. Among those players, only Davis figures to be on the World Cup roster bubble.
“The results in MLS wound up fitting in with our roster plans, so we didn't need to call in any guys who are still in the playoffs,” Klinsmann said Monday.
We’ll take that to mean that the Seattle Sounders’ elimination was enough to round out a roster comprised mainly of players based in Europe.
There also was room for a surprise call-up, despite Klinsmann’s focus on building chemistry and the small number of games remaining before the World Cup. Eric Lichaj, the Nottingham Forest fullback who hasn’t played for the U.S. since Bob Bradley ran the program, finally has been brought in from the cold.
Here’s a look at the roster for the U.S.’s final games of 2013:
Goalkeepers: Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire).
Guzan and Rimando remain the heavy favorites to join Howard in Brazil. Hamid and Johnson have been idle since their MLS seasons ended but obviously remain on Klinsmann’s radar and will get valuable training time with the U.S. The Dynamo's Tally Hall, another member of the U.S. summer goalkeeper crew, remains alive in the MLS playoffs.
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Michael Orozco (Puebla).
Lichaj’s inclusion is a stunner. The Chicagoland native appeared to be on the verge of solving the national team’s pesky left back problem in early 2011. He was quick, skillful, on the books at Aston Villa and he played a key role in the U.S.’s run to that year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup final. But then Mexico thrashed the Americans at the Rose Bowl, Bradley was fired and Lichaj, who subsequently suffered a long-term hip injury, vanished from the national team picture.
This summer, Lichaj stepped down a division to Nottingham Forest, where he’s been a regular on the right. Klinsmann has experimented with several outside backs but still hasn’t found convincing solutions. The current incumbents, Beasley and Evans, are converted midfielders. They’ve done well, but options like Castillo and Cameron, and perhaps even Steve Cherundolo, remain.
Klinsmann would prefer to deploy Cameron in the middle, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Premier League starter on the right. Midfield now appears to the preferred spot for Fabian Johnson
The absence of Besler and Goodson also may give Klinsmann another chance to look at Brooks, the young but sturdy Hertha center back who made his international debut in August’s exhibition win over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Brooks is returning from an elbow injury suffered in September.
Klinsmann was correct – time is short. But the back four remains in considerable flux.
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Roma), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (Stoke City).
Klinsmann said he is “thrilled” to welcome back Bradley, who missed the past four internationals with an ankle injury. The Bradley-Jones central midfield pairing is just about the only sure thing when the coach draws up a starting 11.
Bedoya has been doing well in France and in recent games with the U.S. and may start to push Zusi and Donovan for time on the flank. The games against Scotland and Austria also could represent a make-or-break opportunity for Kljestan, who is vying to make the cut in a crowded midfield.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).
Wondolowski is the slight surprise here, if only because the Earthquakes marksman has been dealing with a chipped bone in his toe. He played out the MLS season with an orthotic in his shoe, and, considering the competition for spots up front, he obviously decided that rest and rehabilitation can come later.
The possible permutations up front appear almost endless, especially considering the fact that Klinsmann’s team now can shift between the preferred 4-2-3-1 and a 4-4-2. Johannsson has been scoring at will in the Netherlands, Boyd has been doing well in Vienna and Klinsmann said he was impressed with how Altidore “is fighting his way through in the Premier League.” This manager has more attacking options than any previous U.S. coach. Klinsmann's choices will become increasingly intriguing as the World Cup approaches.