So much for the best-laid plans of national team managers.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann desperately wanted to avoid a playoff for CONCACAF’s spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup. So he selected a Gold Cup roster stocked with veterans and promising younger players—the best available, he claimed—who comprised a “very, very strong group that can win this prestigious tournament.”
It failed. The U.S. was 2-0-1 but unconvincing in the continental championship’s group stage. After routing Cuba in the quarterfinals, the Americans lost to Jamaica, a team that had beaten the U.S. only once, before falling to Panama in the bronze medal match. It was the worst Gold Cup finish for the U.S. in 15 years.
As a result, the U.S. and Mexico will meet Oct. 10 at the Rose Bowl for CONCACAF’s Confederations Cup ticket. Also as a result, the upcoming friendlies against Peru (Sept. 4 in Washington) and Brazil (Sept. 8 in Foxborough, Mass.) are among the most important of Klinsmann’s tenure. They represent his only opportunity to answer lingering, post-Gold Cup questions and evaluate new combinations before selecting his squad for the Pasadena playoff.
Five weeks before the national team’s biggest non-World Cup game in years is not the time to mess with established chemistry or hand out a bunch of international debuts. It’s not the time for new blood. Starting with Sunday afternoon’s roster announcement, Klinsmann will have 10 days to address July’s mistakes and fine-tune a team that can beat Gold Cup champ Mexico. The U.S. will train in the nation’s capital ahead of Friday’s match at RFK Stadium.
Klinsmann certainly understood the importance of continuity following (and despite) the loss to Panama, when he said his playoff roster would be “very similar” to the one he chose for the Gold Cup. But life as a national team coach is unpredictable. Just ask unemployed Gold Cup champion Miguel Herrera. And over the past few weeks, some of the continuity Klinsmann valued has been stripped away.
Captain Michael Bradley, leading scorer Clint Dempsey and workhorse defender/winger Fabian Johnson likely will miss some or all of the upcoming camp. They arguably are the national team’s three most important field players. The U.S. game plan depends on them, and the tactical domino effect resulting from their potential absence would be significant.
At the same time, other options have emerged. Several veterans who missed the Gold Cup, starting with goalkeeper Tim Howard, will be available for selection. The churn in the player pool is constant, and it will be up to Klinsmann to manage it successfully and in short order.
“Definitely [the friendly roster] is connected to the game against Mexico but it doesn’t have to be 100% exactly the same,” he said this week in a U.S. Soccer interview. “We still have the opportunity in these two friendlies to see certain players coming in and prove to us where they are right now and how hungry, how good they are at the moment. It’s always about the moment in time where you have to prove yourself. … It doesn’t need to be identical, exactly, to what happens in October but definitely will give us a lot of good information for that Mexico game.”
Based on injuries, form and fluctuating availability, it follows that this U.S. squad will reflect this moment in time, and not necessarily Klinsmann’s residual confidence in his Gold Cup selections or his plans for Pasadena. The roster may even change between games, as Bradley hinted when he confirmed he’d miss the Peru match but be available for Brazil. There will be several changes from the Gold Cup team. And there will more changes between the final whistle in Foxborough and kickoff at the Rose Bowl.
Here’s a closer look at where things stand with the U.S. player pool, with an eye toward Sunday’s announcement.
Gold Cup preliminary roster: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), William Yarbrough (Club León)
There hasn’t been a real battle for the No. 1 shirt in more than a decade, since the days of Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. While it’s easy to wonder whether another is on the horizon thanks to Howard’s return, Klinsmann said recently that Brad Guzan, who played every minute at the Gold Cup, remains his starter.
“[Howard] knew it was not going to be easy to come back because obviously Brad Guzan established himself as the No. 1 and played a very good tournament and the whole year he really did a good job,” Klinsmann said. “Tim has accepted for the time being to be the No. 2, and then down the road there will be a fight for the No. 1 spot like in every position. He accepted that, and we are really happy to have him back on board because of who he is and what he has done for us.”
Howard won’t be comfortable as a back-up for long, however. If both ‘keepers are healthy, the decision about who starts against Mexico might be one of the most scrutinized of Klinsmann’s four-plus years in charge. Expect Howard to see some action against either Peru or Brazil.
No one has emerged to surpass 36-year-old Nick Rimando on the pecking order behind the top two. Bill Hamid has been battling a knee injury and has played only twice since the start of July, while William Yarbrough has lost the starting job at León. The Chicago Fire’s Sean Johnson has played well recently and also may get a look.
Gold Cup preliminary roster: Ventura Alvarado (Club América), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Greg Garza (Atlas), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Brek Shea (Orlando City)
Klinsmann continued to back young center backs Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks throughout the Gold Cup, but in the end, their performance didn’t justify the manager’s commitment. They were beaten repeatedly and did little, at least during games, to demonstrate that they’re clearly ahead of veterans like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler or Tim Ream. Alvarado remains a regular for Club América, while Brooks has started the Bundesliga season on the bench at Hertha Berlin.
The good news is that the U.S. has depth at the position, from the aforementioned trio to Geoff Cameron, who missed the Gold Cup but has enjoyed a strong start to the season at Stoke City. It would make little sense to omit the only American field player starting regularly in the English Premier League.
Johnson’s absence (he’s out with an injured calf) will be felt keenly on the flank, but Klinsmann already has committed to bringing the unretired DaMarcus Beasley back into the fold. The Gold Cup injury and consolation game loss were not the way the four-time World Cup veteran wanted to go out.
“It’s a big statement for us because not only is he a guy that’s important on the field with all of the qualities that he has, it seems like he’s not getting older at all, but he’s also extremely important as a chemistry guy within the group,” Klinsmann said of Beasley. “He’s always a positive thinker. He looks after young players. He makes sure that the energy level is high, so to have him back in our group for the future is huge for us.”
DeAndre Yedlin’s unresolved club situation may pose a problem. The European transfer window closes Tuesday and Yedlin, who can play in back or outside midfield, may need to remain in England as Tottenham Hotspur seeks a loan deal. Timmy Chandler and Greg Garza very well may be selected by default—there just aren’t many healthy outside backs from whom to choose. Edgar Castillo is a starter at Monterrey, but hasn’t played for the U.S. since March 2014. Perhaps Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj will return after a nearly-two year absence. He’s demonstrated qualities that Klinsmann appreciates at the position (good with the ball, eager to join the attack) yet has remained on the outside looking in.
The defense is a work in progress.
Gold Cup preliminary roster: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (FC Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Veracruz), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Perry Kitchen (D.C. United), Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Bradley has played every minute for the U.S. this season—all 1,290 across 14 games. That streak will end next week. With Toronto FC in the thick of the playoff race and vying for its first postseason berth in club history, Bradley will stay behind to play in TFC’s Sept. 5 game in Seattle.
"There was some discussions between everyone at U.S. Soccer and everyone at Toronto FC, going back a few months to when we played those friendlies in June,” Bradley told TSN 1050 radio. “There was agreement that for this game in Seattle that I'd be able to stay with Toronto FC and then afterwards, if Jurgen would like, then I'll join up with the team in Boston for the game against Brazil."
But as Bradley takes his temporary leave, Jermaine Jones re-enters the picture. The New England Revolution hard man has recovered from hernia surgery and saw action in each of the club’s past two matches. If Reading’s Danny Williams also returns—he showed well in the June friendlies against Germany and Holland but missed out on the Gold Cup—the U.S. should be okay in the middle. In addition, Kyle Beckerman, who didn’t have a great Gold Cup, remains a Klinsmann favorite.
Alejandro Bedoya and Gyasi Zardes are shoo-ins for the wider roles, and Graham Zusi is a veteran who won’t need time to integrate. Alfredo Morales, who was dismissed from the Gold Cup team following the group stage, may get another look. Miguel Ibarra received several call-ups while with the NASL’s Minnesota United and likely remains on Klinsmann’s radar now that he’s contributing at León (two goals in eight appearances).
Klinsmann has invested even more time in Mix Diskerud, who’s been struggling at New York City FC. But he’s still likely to get an invite over the likes of Sebastian Lletget, Ethan Finlay, Benny Feilhaber, Dax McCarty, Perry Kitchen and others who’ve excelled in MLS but lack recent international seasoning. There will be time after Oct. 10 for more significant changes and introductions.
Gold Cup preliminary roster: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy), Aron Jóhannsson (Werder Bremen), Jordan Morris (Stanford University), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Dempsey, who led the Gold Cup with seven goals, has missed the Sounders’ past three games with a hamstring strain and may not play Sunday when Seattle hosts the Portland Timbers. Either way, he’s not national team fit. But he is national team critical. Klisnmann may call in Dempsey anyway in order to get a closer look, or he may wait and see if his former captain is able to go against Bradley and Toronto on Sept. 5. Perhaps Dempsey will be ready in time for the Brazil game three days later.
Jozy Altidore left the Gold Cup early thanks to a bad hamstring and has been struggling with form and fitness since. He got a boost last weekend, however, scoring twice after coming off the TFC bench against Orlando City. His skill set is unique among U.S. forwards and if healthy, he should be on the squad.
Aron Jóhannsson is settling in at Werder Bremen and already has earned his first Bundesliga start. He didn’t make much of an impression at the Gold Cup but remains a player with significant potential. Chris Wondolowski is once again the highest-scoring U.S.-eligible player in MLS (12 goals) and so is still in the picture, but he may lose out to a couple of young forwards playing in the 2. Bundesliga. Bobby Wood, who scored those memorable goals in the June wins over Germany and the Netherlands, has one goal in six games with Union Berlin. And Andrew Wootten, the Bavarian-born son of an American serviceman, already has five in six games for Sandhausen.
Klinsmann still will stress continuity, but those kind of numbers may convince the manager to make an exception.