The Fight For 23: European-based Americans whose World Cup door is shutting
Jurgen Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer have billed the upcoming training camp and friendly against Ukraine as a last-chance audition for European-based players. With the March 5 affair being the final formal FIFA international fixture prior to the World Cup roster announcement, it certainly feels like a final opportunity for fringe players called in to impress Klinsmann and make their case for one of the 23 player spots on the plane to Brazil.
“This game is a huge opportunity, mainly for our European-based players, for those guys to prove to us that they are eager and hungry to jump on the train to the FIFA World Cup,” Klinsmann said in a U.S. Soccer statement. “With this game being the only chance for these players before our World Cup preparation camp begins, it’s even more important they have a good showing.”
Reading between the lines, that also means that those European-based players not called in for the camp have more than just an uphill battle to earn a place in Brazil, and that their time may have very well passed. Poorly timed injuries have claimed the opportunities of a few, while a lack of recent playing time has cast doubt over others.
Of course, a massive uptick in form in the coming months or potential injuries to others that facilitate positional needs could re-open the door come May, but based on the urgency and importance being placed on this camp and friendly for European-based players it certainly looks like the World Cup clock has run out for the following players:
(Note: Even though Klinsmann did call in Edgar Castillo from Liga MX's Tijuana, that does not necessarily mean that the rest of the Mexico- or Tijuana-based contingent is out of luck. The April 2 friendly against Mexico is likely to include solely MLS- and Mexico-based players, so the opportunity to impress in a game scenario one final time remains for that group of players.)
Time is not on The Mayor of Hannover's side. A veteran of three World Cup rosters (and one who played every minute in South Africa in 2010), it does not look like a fourth is in the cards for the 35-year-old right back, who has battled injuries for a year and has had extremely limited playing time as a result. Cherundolo last played for Hannover on Dec. 21, and he last appeared for Klinsmann on Oct. 16, 2012.
Right back certainly is not a position that is locked down, and if Cherundolo is able to get back on the field consistently for Hannover in the coming months, then perhaps his resume, reputation and past performances would be enough for Klinsmann to give him a call in May. But given his absence for this friendly and pre-game camp -- which is taking place in Frankfurt, Germany, about three hours south of Hannover, no less -- the World Cup window appears to be shutting on one of the all-time great U.S. internationals.
Chandler had seemingly returned to Klinsmann's good graces over the winter, being singled out as a player whose opportunity to make the World Cup team had not expired. Chandler was rounding into form with FC Nurnberg, and even though his flimsy commitment to the U.S. national team in the past had presumably left him on the outskirts (not to mention the impression left by his last U.S. performance, a horrid showing in Honduras to kick off the CONCACAF Hexagonal last February), the fact that fullback is not one of the stronger positions for the U.S. played into his favor. That is, until he tore his left meniscus at the beginning of February and was forced to the sidelines for 8-10 weeks.
Without a chance to prove his worth first-hand to Klinsmann and with his injury slated to shelve him until mid-April, it's increasingly difficult to see Chandler re-entering the squad.
After years of being overlooked and avoided by Klinsmann, Lichaj worked his way into the manager's favor and earned a call-up for the November friendlies against Scotland and Austria. While the right back played in both of those games and has enjoyed overall success with Nottingham Forest this season, Lichaj had the misfortune of missing the last month with a groin injury.
Even though he is set to return for his club this weekend, that did not prove to be enough to earn his way into this camp. With that chance off the table, are two substitute appearances in November friendlies likely to push him into the final roster picture? It seems highly doubtful.
There's a theme developing here. Spector, another right back candidate (though Birmingham has used him in central midfield), had battled the injury and playing-time plague before returning after more than a four-month absence (thigh injury) last weekend. A veteran of the 2010 World Cup roster, Spector has certainly been there before and would provide a voice of experience that the U.S. back line is lacking, but not getting a look in this camp is surely the final dagger for a player who has not played for Klinsmann since the Italy friendly in Feb. 2012.
(Note: Spector was called in as an injury replacement on Sunday evening. Crack his window back open just a bit.)
Gatt's incredible pace makes him a wild card in the U.S. player pool, both at fullback and on the wings, but the knee injury that kept him out of the last five months of Molde's season, coupled with Norway's top flight enduring its lengthy winter break, puts him in a no-win situation. At 22, Gatt is a prime contender to be a contributor in the 2018 cycle, but given his spot call-ups under Klinsmann during the 2014 cycle, there was a glimmer of hope that he'd be able to play a part in Brazil. That ship seems to have sailed.
Holden has always been a bit of an exception to Klinsmann's rule. Remember last year when Klinsmann, more than a month in advance, volunteered his claim that Holden had a place on his Gold Cup squad? He is a special player and a special case, but he won't be rushed back from his latest long-term injury setback by club or country. Bolton announced on its official Twitter feed Friday that Holden would be participating in the club's U-21 match against Everton on Monday for his first game action since tearing his ACL during the Gold Cup final. That is a huge step in the right direction. In 2010, Holden beat the race against time while recovering from a broken leg to snag a place on Bob Bradley's final roster. Klinsmann definitely thinks enough of him to replicate that again, and he is as wild of a card as there is in the player pool, but it is all contingent on where he is physically. Expect extreme caution to be exercised with the 28-year-old midfielder.