When U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann unveiled his preliminary World Cup roster on Monday afternoon, the only real surprise would have been a dearth of surprises.
Since taking over for Bob Bradley in the summer of 2011, Klinsmann has been consistently inconsistent -- and that's by design. The former German international, who won the World Cup as a player in 1990, always intended to reshape American soccer from its foundation, from the way U.S. players train and develop to their on-field tactics and style. Making up ground on the world's elite was going to require work, imagination and risk.
He's employed unconventional methods, tested his players' limits and mined for talent in unexpected places. And he hasn't been afraid to alter course on a dime, whether it's benching an established player or fielding a new formation.
Over the past year and a half, that pursuit became the team's identity more so than the emergence of any given athlete or tactical approach. And it left Klinsmann with plenty to choose from as the World Cup nears. He'll need a lineup and a plan when the U.S. opens against nemesis Ghana on June 16. But despite nearly three years at the helm and a successful 2013, few definitive answers have emerged.
As a result, the camp that kicks off Wednesday in Stanford, Calif. -- which will bleed into friendlies against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria -- will be as much about selecting a 23-man roster and identifying individual roles as fine-tuning for the Group of Death. There are plenty of players with something to prove before June 2, when final squad lists are due, and plenty of potential 23-man teams. And that's probably just how Klinsmann wants it.
"With naming the 30-man roster we enter another big step toward the World Cup. The clock is ticking and that is good on our end because we can make decisions and move forward," he said. "It’s exciting because we can get to work and we can see the players now, day-in and day-out, training and scrimmaging and doing a lot of work and getting a much more detailed picture from every one of them over the next three weeks."
Here, then, is where the U.S. stands now as the team begins to gather in the Bay Area. The World Cup picture will clear up over the next few weeks. But considering the amount of competition Klinsmann has created at each position and how some of fluid those positions are, not mention the lack of World Cup experience (there are only nine holdovers from 2010), there surely are a few more surprises in store.
On The Plane
FIFA mandates that each World Cup team have three goalkeepers and Klinsmann called in only three. Barring injury, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando are headed to Brazil.
Sporting Kansas City captain Matt Besler is smart and good with the ball at his feet, which Klinsmann values highly in a center back. Geoff Cameron's versatility - he can play in the middle or on the right, may leave him without a defined starting role but it's sure to get him to the World Cup. He's the only field player in camp who's a regular starter in the English Premier League (Stoke City). Fabian Johnson is listed as a defender, which is a good sign, but he's been effective as an outside midfielder. Either way, the fleet and skillful German-American will be an asset in Brazil.
One thing fans and opponents can count on with Klinsmann is the central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. There's debate about whether Bradley might be more effective alongside a more conservative partner like the conservative but dependable Kyle Beckerman, but the manager believes that Jones' experience, range and bite make him invaluable. Graham Zusi may not start, but he'll surely make the team thanks his unique vision and passing on the flank.
Up front, captain Clint Dempsey has obliterated any doubt that the dip in fortune he endured after signing last summer with the Seattle Sounders might linger. He'll head to his third World Cup as the second-leading scorer in MLS with eight goals. Jozy Altidore lacks that momentum and confidence, but Klinsmann won't abandon his young target forward despite the struggles at Sunderland. Icelandic-American striker Aron Jóhannsson is another player who may not start, but will certainly travel. His knack for finishing and touch in tight spaces sets him apart.
Regarding Altidore, Klinsmann said, "Jozy is still a very young player and he is going into his learning curve. We have worked with him now over the last three years, and he’s gone from a much younger player into a more mature player, playing very good games for us and scoring important goals for us. Still, we see Jozy in his development phase. Jozy is not built yet. Jozy has not reached his potential yet. Our job, as coaches, is to help him reach his highest potential. I think the next two months will be a big part of that next learning curve for Jozy Altidore."
At the Gate
Central defender Omar Gonzalez, the L.A. Galaxy stalwart, has struggled with his consistency in recent months and recently picked up a minor knee injury, but he's still the leading candidate to start alongside Besler. He'll have to find his fitness and avoid any crippling errors before June 2. Klinsmann said the coaching staff is "not concerned at all," about Gonzalez' health. Clarence Goodson has significant experience and probably will be in Brazil as cover in back.
Neither DaMarcus Beasley nor Brad Evans are outside backs by trade, but the lack of clarity at the position and their contributions during qualifying, not to mention their leadership, leave them in a good spot. Michael Parkhurst can play centrally or out wide has impressed with his composure in leadership since joining the Columbus Crew.
Julian Green, 18, plays in the German fourth division with Bayern Munich's reserves, but his decision to switch his international allegiance to the U.S. from his native Germany was considered by many to be a massive victory for Klinsmann. In return, the coach has given the teenager the opportunity to earn a spot on the World Cup roster. He'll likely get the benefit of the doubt.
Klinsmann also has been impressed with Alejandro Bedoya, a shifty attacker who's done well at France's FC Nantes, and Mix Diskerud, the Norwegian-born playmaker.
Stuck in Security
Seattle Sounders youngster DeAndre Yedlin was considered a right back for the future, but his invitation in camp signifies that Klinsmann still has doubts about the position. Ditto Timmy Chandler, who hasn't played for the U.S. since his disastrous outing in Honduras in February 2013. Imposing center back John Brooks, 21, has done well at Germany's Hertha Berlin but lacks the experience of Gonzalez, Goodson and Cameron and the versatility of Maurice Edu, a defensive midfielder who can play in back in a pinch.
Few deliver a free kick or cross like veteran Brad Davis, but Klinsmann will have to determine whether the Houston Dynamo icon will adjust to the speed of the Americans' Group G foes. The skillful Joe Corona will have his work cut out trying to earn a spot in a crowded midfield.
Forwards Terrence Boyd and Chris Wondolowski beat out Eddie Johnson, who was left off despite solid performances in qualifying and at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and may wind up fighting it out for one seat on the flight. Both are in form and both bring unbridled enthusiasm - whomever has the better camp likely will get the nod.
"The next three weeks are definitely about the form they are in," Klinsmann said of the chase for roster spots. "The players know I don’t have to name them right now. They know they have a battle ahead of them. It is a daily competition. It is an awesome competition to be in because it’s about going to the World Cup ... It’s a lot about timing and a lot about momentum going into the World Cup and we all know that."
The most intriguing story in camp arguably is that of the program's all-time leading scorer, who remains the face of American soccer even as his career inches past its peak. Klinsmann has refused to cut Donovan any slack or reward him for past heroics, and he hasn't been shy about criticizing the player publicly. In turn, Donovan 32, has been candid about his shifting role and uncertain international future, saying he hopes to aid the World Cup effort in whatever way he can. He's yet to score for the L.A. Galaxy this season.
"Since he took his break [in early 2013], I simply told him, ‘If you take a break like that, then you have to fight your way back into the picture and you have to confirm it week-in, week-out with performances for your club team and you have to confirm it also with performances for the national team ... We’re still on that same path. He gets evaluated every time he comes in, and I’m straightforward with him every time that I see him," Klinsmann said. "For me this is very, very normal, and again, with all the appreciation, with all the admiration for what he’s done throughout his career, which is extraordinary and deserves the compliments that he gets, but soccer is about what happens today and what you do today, and what you hopefully do tomorrow."
Either Klinsmann is impressed by Donovan's team-first attitude or turned off by a perceived lack of form and hunger. One can imagine Donovan starting against Ghana or incredibly, failing to make the 23-man roster. With this team, it's anyone's guess.