Considering the massive investment in time, resources and institutional confidence in Jurgen Klinsmann, one could make a case that this World Cup cycle—his second at the helm of the U.S. national team—is the most important of U.S. Soccer’s modern era. Klinsmann was hired to dig deep, aim high and change the trajectory of not only the senior squad, but the teams below it. And he likely has only two years left to do it. Success would set American soccer on a promising new course. Failure would leave it adrift.
One also could make the case that there’s never been a mid-term exam like the one coming in June. Two years after a World Cup, the U.S. typically is negotiating a schedule comprising friendlies and a couple qualifiers against unfancied opposition. But this summer is special, as it comes 100 years after the first South American championship tournament was contested back in 1916.
In June, that anniversary will be celebrated with the Copa América Centenario, a one-time-only (we think) event designed to crown the champion of the Western hemisphere. It’s contrived, sure. But it’s also a stacked, 16-team tournament featuring the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay. The Copa is considered an official competition by FIFA, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL and is, according to Klinsmann, “The second biggest tournament after the World Cup and really the biggest tournament since the World Cup in 1994 in the United States.”
In that case, the manager and his team need to show well. A strong performance this summer—let’s say a run to the semifinals—not only would eliminate much of the acrid aftertaste from last year’s failures at the Gold Cup and Confederations Cup playoff, it would validate Klinsmann’s post-World Cup work and re-establish confidence in the program’s trajectory. And renewed confidence and commitment is important both inside the locker room and in the stands.
On Friday, Klinsmann is scheduled to submit a 40-man preliminary Copa América roster. That list must be narrowed to 23 by May 20. Since results and performance matter, the final squad should reflect the strengths of the mid-cycle player pool, not serve as a preview or developmental exercise for the 2018 World Cup.
Two years is a soccer eternity. In the summer of 2000, Landon Donovan was an 18-year old in professional limbo. Four years later, Clint Dempsey was a rookie with the New England Revolution. In 2012, Matt Besler, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin were uncapped, Omar Gonzalez had two, Alejandro Bedoya was out of the picture and no one could have imagined Donovan remaining in the U.S. while a teenager named Julian Green went to Brazil.
Players will emerge or fade away over the next two years, and now is not the time to bring in the likes of Fafa Picault, Sebastian Lletget, Jerome Kiesewetter, Brandon Vincent, Christian Ramirez, Emerson Hyndman or Paul Arriola. The vast majority of the 2014 squad remains in frame and vital to the cause. While Klinsmann’s effort to introduce competition and a bit of new blood has seen the likes of Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood earn significant minutes, it hasn’t produced an obvious, first-choice starter. The young men who make the final 23-man list should be there because they can help the U.S. win now.
As Klinsmann narrows his squad to 40 and as the pre-Copa friendlies against Puerto Rico (May 22), Ecuador (May 25) and Bolivia (May 28) approach, here’s a look at where the U.S. player pool stands as it heads toward a unique yet critical competition:
Typically an area of U.S. strength, the American goalkeeper corps arguably is saddled with an unprecedented amount of uncertainty. Veterans Tim Howard and Brad Guzan have been the top two in recent years, but the former has been on the bench at Everton (the club did announce Friday he would start the final two home games of the season), while the latter gets shelled at Aston Villa. Neither is ideal heading into a big tournament.
Heir apparent Bill Hamid remains sidelined with a knee injury, which paved the way for San Jose Earthquakes netminder David Bingham to get the call for the recent winter camp. Klinsmann will weigh his development, and that of U-23 goalie Ethan Horvath, against the experience of Real Salt Lake stalwart Nick Rimando when deciding on his No. 3.
Copa Locks: Brad Guzan, Tim Howard
Looking Good: David Bingham
In Contention: Ethan Horvath, Nick Rimando, Luis Robles, William Yarbrough
Klinsmann opted for youth in central defense at the 2015 Gold Cup, which turned out to be a mistake, and he’s been shuffling the back four ever since. That says as much about the manager’s indecision as it does the fact that no one really has emerged to claim a quasi-permanent starting role.
Still, there’s more depth in the middle than on the flanks, where Klinsmann will confront the temptation to deploy Fabian Johnson at left back rather than the Borussia Monchengladbach’s preferred spot in midfield. Brek Shea may be the best alternative. Tim Ream, Timmy Chandler and Edgar Castillo are among other international part-timers still in the picture. Santos Laguna’s Jorge Villafana probably should be.
Meanwhile, DeAndre Yedlin’s improved consistency on the right for Sunderland should make him the easiest defensive choice.
Copa Locks: Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin
Looking Good: Steve Birnbaum, Edgar Castillo, Omar Gonzalez, Michael Orozco, Brek Shea
In Contention: Kellyn Acosta, Ventura Alvarado, Timmy Chandler, Brad Evans, Matt Miazga, Michael Orozco, Tim Parker, Tim Ream, Jorge Villafana
Most of the intrigue surrounding Klinsmann’s roster will be focused on the midfield, where 17-year-old Christian Pulisic may be ready to contribute. Worry over “too much, too soon” seems quaint while the Pennsylvanian playmaker is earning meaningful minutes and scoring goals at Borussia Dortmund, one of Europe’s elite clubs.
If Pulisic can thrive amid the week-to-week pressure at the Westfalenstadion, he can handle playing for the U.S. His vision, touch and elusiveness are uncommon on Klinsmann’s squad and very well could prove useful on a team still lacking in midfield creativity. If there’s one risk worth taking on the Copa roster, it’s Pulisic.
And he may not even be that much of a risk.
“Getting that experience now and getting the feeling that he can compete with the older guys, it gives him a big boost confidence-wise. The fact that he’s in Dortmund in a very intense environment is very helpful because they put him in line right away,” Klinsmann said in a recent U.S. Soccer Q&A. “With the statements he sends out there—scoring his first goal for Dortmund, starting a game in the Bundesliga, getting valuable minutes in that very intense environment—he sends messages out toward what happens with the national team as well.”
The U.S. remains robust in the spine with captain Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, although its unlikely the trio will simultaneously. Alejandro Bedoya often moves out wide even though he’s more naturally a central player, and Zardes frequently is withdrawn with the U.S. The LA Galaxy man is quick and enterprising but his touch and finishing remain inconsistent. MLS playmakers Darlington Nagbe and Lee Nguyen also could make an impact, while Graham Zusi signaled his return with a goal in last month’s win over Guatemala.
Copa Locks: Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Gyasi Zardes
Looking Good: Ethan Finlay, Lee Nguyen, Graham Zusi
In Contention: Mix Diskerud, Ethan Finlay, Miguel Ibarra, Perry Kitchen, Alfredo Morales, Wil Trapp, Danny Williams
Dempsey’s performance at last year’s Gold Cup demonstrated that he’s still the national team’s most reliable finisher, and Jozy Altidore will be desperate to make an impact after missing out on most of the Gold Cup and 2014 World Cup with injuries. They remain the most likely candidates to start at the Copa.
There’s not a ton of depth up front. Wood’s increasing comfort in a U.S. jersey and his spectacular season for Union Berlin (he has 17 goals in 28 2. Bundesliga appearances) make him a near certainty for the third spot, and perhaps even a starting role. Klinsmann then could decide to go with experience by opting for the in-form Chris Wondolowski (seven goals in eight games), or build part of the bridge to 2018 with the selection of Seattle Sounders rookie Jordan Morris.
Zardes typically plays up front for L.A. and might do so for the U.S. if Klinsmann opts for a 4-4-2.
Copa Locks: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood
Looking Good: Chris Wondolowski
In Contention: Jerome Kiesewetter