Injuries, club schedules leave U.S. scrambling to prepare for Italy
GENOA, Italy -- With the sun glistening off the Mediterranean in the distance, the U.S. had its first training session on Monday before Wednesday's friendly against Italy (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN2/3, Galavisión). Just 11 U.S. players were on hand for the morning practice, due partly to Sunday club games and partly to last-minute roster changes for health reasons.
Jermaine Jones (strained right calf), José Torres (strained right hamstring), Timmy Chandler (strained left hamstring) and Landon Donovan (bronchitis) were all late scratches, and they've been replaced by Brek Shea and Sacha Kljestan. Donovan's absence is particularly notable: It means the U.S.'s two top field players (Donovan and Clint Dempsey) will miss playing together for the 10th time in coach Jurgen Klinsmann's 10-game tenure.
"Whatever situation you face with injuries right before games, you just take it the way it is," says Klinsmann, who played briefly in Genoa for Sampdoria in 1997. "If José Torres or Landon Donovan can't come in, you've got to solve it. The players that get the next opportunity are hungry. They want to steal the spot from the one that isn't there. This is the nature of the beast of soccer. We're going to have a very competitive side on Wednesday night."
Other nuggets from Monday:
• The lone surprise omission from the original U.S. squad was Kljestan, the midfielder who's had a fine season at Belgian leader Anderlecht. He's now in camp due to the injury bug, but it's clear that he's got room to move up on Klinsmann's positional rankings chart.
"I know where he fits in," Klinsmann says. "But in his position if it's the six or eight position in the team" -- Klinsmann uses old-school numbers for each position, which are reflected in players' jersey numbers -- "look at who we have. That's why it's tough for him to break in and get into the starting lineup, even if he has a good season at Anderlecht. We see the games. I have my scouts go and watch him. Martín [Vásquez, Klinsmann's assistant] was just there at the Alkmaar game. But then we have Michael Bradley, Danny Williams, Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman, José Torres, all these players. So it's very, very tight. We want him to push and push."
• Of the 11 players at morning practice, only Terrence Boyd did not participate in training. (He played 90 minutes for Borussia Dortmund's under-23 team on Sunday but was scheduled to join in for Monday's afternoon practice.) Boyd, a 21-year-old German-American forward, was the surprise selection of this squad, not least because he has yet to play for Dortmund's senior team. He is expected to be part of the Olympic team if the U.S. qualifies, and Klinsmann wanted to see him firsthand this week.
"I want to push the envelope a little bit for the forwards," Klinsmann says. "I don't want anybody to feel comfortable. Not Jozy [Altidore], not Edson [Buddle], nobody. [Boyd] brings an energy to the group. He's a high-pressure player. He goes at people. From there he goes in the box and finishes things off. I wanted to personally see him. I want to introduce him to the group, and even if he doesn't play, he gets a first feel of what it means to be part of the senior team."
• Jozy Altidore scored two goals for AZ Alkmaar on Sunday in his first start since Dec. 18, but Klinsmann brought up Altidore's name not once but twice on his own Monday in references to pressure needing to be put on the 22-year-old forward.
"We want to see guys who fight for their spots," Klinsmann says. "That's the first message to Jozy when he gets here: Man, we want you to be in the starting lineup. I'm not happy with it. I don't want to see you coming off the bench. Yesterday was a start maybe. He has to underline that. He has to be ready in training every time. He can't be late, he can't be lazy, he can't be anything like that. This is what we want to see. They'll hear that every time they come into the national team camp. If over the stretch of two and a half years toward Brazil we see maybe they don't get that message, they will have a problem."
• Bradley, who's enjoying a solid first season at Italy's Chievo, showed off his impressive Italian language skills with the local media. The determination to learn a new language quickly is always one of the better predictors of longevity for a U.S. player in a foreign country (think Steve Cherundolo in Germany), and Bradley made it a priority upon arriving in Italy last fall. "When I got here I said to my wife, we've got to put as much as we can into learning as quickly as possible. That doesn't mean it'll be smooth every day, but we've tried pretty hard to adapt in all ways, and in a country like Italy the first thing is the language."
Bradley has yet to become a lineup mainstay under Klinsmann, making two starts (against Mexico and Slovenia) in the five games he has been with the team under the current regime. But that may be changing. "He made himself a very good case," Klinsmann says of Bradley's work at club level and in the friendly win in November against Slovenia. Bradley, for his part, says he's enjoying playing in a country that eats and breathes
• Final notes from Genoa: Don't be surprised if Fabian Johnson plays at left back on Wednesday, especially after Chandler was scratched. Klinsmann saw Johnson play at left back on Saturday in Hoffenheim's victory over Wolfsburg. He added that the challenge is to find the best spot on the field in the long term for Johnson, who played well at left midfield for the U.S. against Slovenia ... The U.S.'s practice took place at the training ground of the club Genoa, which is the oldest soccer club in Italy (est. 1893) and goes by the formal name Genoa Cricket and Football Club ... Still recovering from attending my first game at San Siro, Saturday's memorable 1-1 tie between AC Milan and Juventus, the top two teams in Serie A. I got to see Milan put the ball two feet over Juve's goal line without being credited with a goal; got to see Juve silence the home fans with a late equalizer; and got to hear booms go off in the stadium at random times, causing me to duck instinctively each occasion. Atmosphere-wise, it doesn't get much better ... Genoa is the birthplace of pesto, so I tried some out with fresh pasta on Sunday at Zefferino. Great stuff. The waiter brought by scrapbooks with pictures of the proprietor giving jars of pesto to Pope John Paul II, who appeared to be quite happy.
Back on Tuesday with more ...