Intent on securing a spot in the Hexagonal with room to spare, and before this summer’s Copa América Centenario, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann unveiled a 26-man roster on Sunday afternoon that features a host of veterans, a couple players who may be battling injuries and two more who could be helping the U-23 team qualify for the Olympics. In short, Klinsmann is using every potential resource at his disposal in an effort to win the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala scheduled for Friday in Guatemala City and March 29 in Columbus, Ohio.
“Our goal definitely for the two Guatemala fixtures is six points. We badly want to get the job done before the Copa América if possible,” Klinsmann said. “We know it’s going to be very difficult, especially in Guatemala City. But it’s also going to be difficult in Columbus, but there we have a great crowd behind us. It will be vital how we come out right away from the first second in Guatemala City and hopefully being able to get three points. That would make things a lot easier for the second game.”
After defeating St. Vincent and the Grenadines in St. Louis and drawing Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain last November, the U.S. is 1-0-1 and tied with Trinidad atop their four-team semifinal group. The top two finishers will advance to the Hexagonal, which kicks off in November. This month’s qualifiers also will mark the final time the U.S. is together before June’s Copa América. As a result, Klinsmann is inviting 26 players to Miami this week rather than the customary 23 in order to get a look at additional candidates for that competition.
The concurrent Olympic qualifiers add another wrinkle. On the same nights the U.S. plays Guatemala, the U-23 team will face Colombia in a do-or-die, home-and-home series that will send the survivor to Rio de Janeiro. Despite the breathing room Klinsmann’s team has in a relatively weak World Cup qualifying group, DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, who are Olympic eligible, will be with the senior squad rather than the U-23s. The two rosters aren’t locked, meaning Yedlin and Brooks theoretically could join the Olympic team for the second leg of the Colombia series in Frisco, Texas.
“At the end of the day, priority always is the senior team,” Klinsmann said. “Priority is World Cup qualifying, so there are no compromises made like sending the players that are age-eligible for the Olympic team to the Olympic team already. We are convinced our Olympic team will do really well in Colombia and get a decent result there, and then we hope for big support in Dallas for the return game. We are convinced they will get the job done.”
Klinsmann also opted to bring in Fabian Johnson, Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe, three players who may be operating at less than 100 percent. Johnson, who’s been on a brilliant run of form with Borussia Mönchengladbach, was removed in the second half of Friday’s game at Schalke 04 with an adductor injury. Altidore missed Toronto FC’s first two MLS matches with an injured hamstring and Nagbe was left hobbling by a hard tackle in Saturday night’s draw between his Portland Timbers and Real Salt Lake.
For Klinsmann, it’s worth getting a look at these key players in person. Whether or not they’re available, the U.S. will be expected to get good results against Guatemala, the 95th-ranked team in the world. The Americans are on a 21-game unbeaten streak against Los Chapines dating back to 1988. It’s their longest such run against any opponent.
Here’s a look at Klinsmann’s roster, which features 15 players who went to the 2014 World Cup and eight more in line to make their qualifying debut:
David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), William Yarbrough (Club León)
Either Guzan or Howard will start, although neither will arrive in camp with much positive momentum. Howard, who signed with the Colorado Rapids on Sunday, has been on the bench at Everton for two months. Guzan has been getting shelled at relegation-bound Aston Villa. Klinsmann will hope that a change of scenery benefits his experienced netminders.
Nick Rimando, who’s typically been the manager’s third choice, makes way for Bingham and Yarbrough. Bingham impressed at the recent January camp and Yarbrough has been “very consistent” with León, Klinsmann said.
Ventura Alvarado (Club América), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)
There are some interesting choices here, starting with the inclusion of Brooks. There’s no question the 23-year-old, who’s been outstanding at third-place Hertha, is deserving. The issue is that first-choice U-23 center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is injured, leaving the Olympic team vulnerable against Colombia. With the likes of Gonzalez, Cameron, Besler and Orozco available, the senior team isn’t lacking in center back options against a Guatemala side that was shut out by Cuba at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Yedlin also is Olympic-eligible but plays a position (right back) where the U.S. has far less depth.
Monterrey’s Castillo, who hasn’t appeared for the U.S. in two years, and Alvarado, who’s often on the bench at América, also are somewhat surprising inclusions. It seemed last fall that Tim Ream and Jonathan Spector had worked their way back into the national team picture, but they’ll stay in England this month. Both are comfortable on the flank, where Klinsmann’s team remains thin. Orlando City’s Break Shea is another potential outside back who was left off the roster.
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers FC), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution)
New Colorado Rapids signing Jermaine Jones is unavailable thanks to the six-game suspension he incurred at the end of the 2015 season for bumping a referee. Klinsmann has several options to replace him, depending on how he structures the midfield. Beckerman could fill in as a traditional defensive presence, or the manager could opt for a more dynamic central pairing featuring captain Michael Bradley and someone like Diskerud or Nagbe (Timbers coach Caleb Porter said Saturday evening that he didn’t think Nagbe would miss any time).
Bedoya and Johnson would be the heavy favorites to start out wide if not for the latter’s injury issue. Bedoya, who has four goals and two assists since New Year’s, returns to the U.S. for the first time since October and likely will be deployed on the right.
Potential defensive midfielders Danny Williams and Perry Kitchen were left off the roster, signaling that Klinsmann expects his team to have the possession advantage and play on the front foot. If that’s the case, Nguyen could feature as a skillful link between the midfield and forwards. Finlay, the Columbus winger, gets an invitation after showing well at January camp.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Dempsey, who’s tied with the retired Landon Donovan for the most goals in U.S. World Cup qualifying history (13), returns to the national team for the first time since October’s Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico. The Sounders forward was left off the squad that opened World Cup qualifying the following month and has gone scoreless in three MLS games this season. Nevertheless, he’s expected to lead the line against Guatemala.
“Having Clint Dempsey back is very, very important for us as well,” Klinsmann said. “He’s a tremendous goal scorer and when we play teams like Guatemala, you need to figure out ways to score just one or two goals that make the difference. Clint is a guy that can get that done. We are happy to have him back in our group. He started well in the CONCACAF Champions League with two goals, but he hasn’t scored yet in MLS. Hopefully he will score with us before he goes back to MLS.”
Wondolowski, Wood and Zardes may not have Dempsey’s pedigree, but they are in good form. Wondolowski has three goals in three games for San Jose, Zardes struck twice in the Galaxy’s 3-1 win over the Earthquakes on Saturday and Bobby Wood’s ascension has continued at Union Berlin, where he’s now the 2. Bundesliga’s third-leading scorer with 14 goals.