By Brian Straus
April 02, 2014

Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley From left, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley haven't started a match together since June 2012. (Bob Levey, Getty Images)

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Exhibitions between the U.S. and Mexico already are pretty unfriendly.

They attract large, divided crowds (more than 55,000 tickets have been sold for Wednesday night’s tilt here at University of Phoenix Stadium), and there’s an abundance of history and animosity on which to draw.

Conversation this week has ranged from U.S. coach Jurge Klinsmann’s annoyance at Puebla FC’s refusal to release defenders DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco to Mexico manager Miguel Herrera’s claim that El Tri doesn’t owe its World Cup qualification to the Americans. In fact, he said, the U.S. owes Mexico for taking California.

Before that buzzworthy backdrop, the rivals will square off with even more at stake than the typical “unfriendly.”

Klinsmann’s World Cup camp kicks off next month, and while some players here must focus on earning their invitation, the shoo-ins will be reminded that it’s now time to find their form. For all the work that’s been done to create competition and deepen the player pool, questions remain about Klinsmann’s core as Brazil and the Group of Death loom.

It’s tempting to look toward the back end of the roster, and even the bubble. That’s where the drama is, and Julian Green’s arrival has injected considerable intrigue and likely has made a couple players nervous. But Wednesday’s game is significant for the big names as well. And they know it.

“It’s a different kind of pressure,” Clint Dempsey said.

Perhaps no World Cup lock faces more scrutiny than the captain, who’s endured a bumpy transition from England to MLS and has scored just once for the U.S. since netting a pair against Germany 10 months ago. There are mitigating circumstances aplenty, from the upheaval of a summer move to Seattle to several nagging injuries and a frustrating (and scoreless) two month stint with Fulham.

Dempsey got a goal in the Sounders’ March 15 loss to Toronto FC but hasn’t played since. He was suspended by MLS for two games for a slap to a TFC player’s groin. It’s been an uneven year, at best, for a player who recently was considered the national team’s most clutch performer and by some, its heart and soul.

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Dempsey insisted Tuesday that he’s headed in the right direction.

“I did have some injuries and the last injury I had I was out for four weeks with the calf [before] going out to Fulham,” he said. “The goal [of the loan] was to try to help the team out but also for me, to get minutes and get my body right. From that standpoint, it was a success because I felt good coming back into MLS. I think you can see that in the first two games, getting a goal and assist and feeling good about my play and unfortunately I was out for two games … [I’m] just excited about this game and moving forward. There’s some important games coming up and I’m looking forward to the challenge and making sure I’m right going into this year.”

Dempsey has the match against Mexico and then seven more games with the Sounders before World Cup camp convenes in Palo Alto, Calif. in mid May. There’s an opportunity to establish some momentum.

There isn’t much time, however, for Dempsey and fellow U.S. linchpins Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley to find their groove together. In addition to goalkeeper Tim Howard, they are the accomplished faces of the U.S. national team. And incredibly, they haven’t started a match together in nearly 22 months. That game in Guatemala, a World Cup qualifier that ended 1-1, featured the three-center-midfielder alignment that Klinsmann has since abandoned. How Dempsey, Bradley and Donovan might fit into the current 4-2-3-1 formation hasn’t been firmly established.

“It doesn’t seem like it has been quite that long but it’d be good to hopefully get us back on the field together on Wednesday and hopefully a good chance to get a game against a good quality team before the summer,” Bradley told reporters on Monday.

Donovan said Tuesday that the time apart “certainly has an impact. There’s no question.”

He said, “We are three guys with a lot of experience, have played a lot of games at a high level both individually and collectively and as Brazil inches close we need to build chemistry. We need guys playing well and clicking well together, so tomorrow’s another opportunity for us to do that.”

Donovan and Bradley are just starting their seasons – the latter with a new club – and Dempsey still is searching for consistency. Donovan said it’s vital that each is nearing his peak by the time they reconvene in May. At that point, he claimed, there will be ample opportunity to work on the collective.

“We’ll have plenty of time to gel and get together,” he said. “Right now, it’s about being in good form. It’s about playing well and being confident so when May, June come around, you’re playing at your best. We’ll have plenty of time to gel as a team.”

The U.S. will play friendlies against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria before heading to Brazil. There’s still a lot of work to do. Jozy Altidore’s drought is an issue, regardless of whether one blames him or his club. There are decisions to make at outside back and, perhaps, one of the flank midfielder spots depending on where Klinsmann prefers to deploy Fabian Johnson. There are tough calls to make toward the bottom of the roster. The last thing Klinsmann needs is for his most accomplished, indispensable players to be out of rhythm when they leave for Brazil.

Wednesday represents the start of the stretch run.

“It’s great,” Klinsmann said prior to Monday’s practice. “There will be discussions, talks over the next couple of days with those three and the experienced guys because obviously in the back of our minds it’s already kind of middle of May when we go into camp for the World Cup. It’s great. For them now it’s an opportunity to kind of show that on the field on Wednesday night. When you kind of have this senior leadership role, call it whatever you want, then you have to confirm that also on the field—which is the fun part.”

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