If there’s a downside to U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmnann’s pursuit of a deeper and more competitive player pool, he lived through it this past weekend as he finalized his preliminary World Cup roster.
Since taking over in the summer of 2011, Klinsmann has tested the limits of his players individually and the American depth chart as a whole. No veteran’s place was certain. In fact, there are only nine holdovers from the 2010 World Cup squad. Tactics continually evolved. Positions changed and form rose and fell. Dual nationals were recruited, second (or even third) chances were granted and over time, the potential permutations increased. With the World Cup in Brazil only weeks away, Klinsmann’s team remained in a state of flux.
In their most recent outing, a 2-2 friendly draw with Mexico last month, the Americans started with Landon Donovan on the bench and in a 4-4-2 formation featuring a diamond midfield. Both choices were unexpected. Those curve balls highlighted the promise and the problem generated by so much testing and tinkering: Yes, the world’s best teams have options. But they also have an identity.
On Monday afternoon, Klinsmann finally unveiled a few (or 30) conclusions. We still don’t know his team’s ideal alignment -- or if there even is one -- and several key starting roles remain unclaimed. The strengths to which the U.S. will play this summer aren’t entirely clear. But we do know the identity of the 30 players vying to be on the 23-man World Cup roster, which must be submitted to FIFA on June 2. It’s a start. And not surprisingly, Klinsmann admitted that he had to make several tough choices.
“The clock is ticking and that’s good on our end because we can make decisions and move forward. It’s been quite a process over the last two-and-a-half years leading the team toward the World Cup in Brazil. A lot of players were involved in that process,” the coach said during a Monday conference call. “It’s not that easy because you have to leave a couple players, quite a few ones out that were part of this important process and took us actually to Brazil … It hurts you because you know it hurts the player in that moment, but it’s something a coach has to do.”
The most surprising omission was D.C. United forward Eddie Johnson, whose resurgence for club and country was among American soccer’s most poignant and polarizing stories over the past couple of years. Johnson, 30, has scored seven international goals under Klinsmann, all since the summer of 2012. Only DaMarcus Beasley was capped as often last year (they each had 17 appearances) and Johnson often came through in the clutch. His four World Cup qualifying goals were surpassed only by Clint Dempsey’s eight.
But it wasn’t enough.
“He’s one of those guys that was a very difficult decision based on what he’s done this whole time, and not now having that chance at the last moment then is a very tough one on him,” Klinsmann said. “You go through every one of those players. You eye their strengths and weakness and what they bring to the table and I just felt like, the way I want to build that puzzle for the 23-man roster I see [other] players now competing a little bit ahead of the curve.”
Klinsmann named six forwards to the roster, including Donovan, who often plays as a wide midfielder and hasn’t tallied a goal in 2014. Of course, Johnson has played out wide as well. Although scoreless and in transition in D.C., Johnson arguably was a more consistent performer for Klinsmann than the program’s all-time leading scorer. Johnson also lost out to Jozy Altidore, who just concluded a nightmare of a season in England, as well as Terrence Boyd, who's been productive for Rapid Vienna but has never scored a goal for the U.S. Then there’s Julian Green, the 18-year-old German-American attacker (listed as a midfielder) who’s played all of three minutes for Bayern Munich’s senior squad.
Klinsmann acknowledged that, “no coach would choose exactly the same 30 players.” That’s a critical admission.
Johnson’s case illustrates the lack of consistent, clear-cut criteria. Chris Wondolowski’s form (five goals in nine MLS games in 2014) mattered. Altidore’s didn’t. Altidore’s history in a U.S. uniform mattered. Johnson’s didn’t. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are young, relatively untested defenders with considerable upside. But their five combined caps are fewer than Tim Ream’s eight, and Ream recently was named Bolton Wanderers’ player of the year. Yedlin and Brooks are headed to Stanford this week. Ream isn’t.
Timmy Chandler had a disastrous outing last year in a qualifier against Honduras and hasn't played for the U.S. since. He's even declined past call-ups. But he earned an invitation to camp because he’s performed well for FC Nürnberg. Fellow outside back Edgar Castillo has been better for the U.S. and is a regular for Club Tijuana, but didn’t get the nod. Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber, a 2010 World Cup veteran, is in perhaps the best form of his career. He’s on the outside looking in. But midfielders Joe Corona (a frequent reserve at Tijuana) and Mix Diskerud, both considerably younger, made the cut. Meanwhile, pedigree beat potential out wide as Houston Dynamo captain Brad Davis got an invite and Brek Shea, the mercurial winger who scored the CONCACAF Gold Cup-clinching goal last summer, did not.
In the end, after observing his players in matches, during training and with their clubs over the past 33 months, Klinsmann simply has developed more faith in some than others. He’s looking less at a case that might be made for a given player -- Sacha Kljestan plays in the UEFA Champions League, and you said you wanted players competing at the highest level -- and more at how they fit into a team concept he believes is necessary for World Cup success. It’s a concept he’s still working to build.
Monday’s 30-man roster represents Klinsmann’s observations and gut feelings, not to mention his own World Cup experience, and not a list of players who’ve met the conditions on a static check list. The right blend and the ideal chemistry live in the eye of the beholder. For that reason, barring locks like Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley, it’s easy to imagine a significant percentage of those 30 players getting cut on June 2 or getting minutes against Ghana two weeks later. It's easy to picture several players in different positions, from Geoff Cameron to Fabian Johnson and Dempsey. On-field partnerships and responsibilities must be further defined. If 30 questions were answered on Monday, many more still remain.
“You can have that discussion. You can have those debates and still, I’d have a couple players going into Stanford where I think it will be another few 50/50 situations -- center backs, fullbacks, two to three midfielders, obviously strikers, who will compete for spots,” Klinsmann said. “But now the good thing is the next three weeks before we have to name it on the 2nd of June, we can see them every day. We can see them compete with each other, day in and day out.”
For some teams, pre-World Cup camp is a time to fine tune tactics or work out a few kinks. For the U.S., Stanford and the ensuing friendlies against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria are where it will start to come together. By being so thorough for so long, Klinsmann has given himself lots of options, but also more work to do.
“They know they have a battle ahead of them and it’s a daily competition. It’s an awesome competition to be in because it’s about going to a World Cup. They should take it very positively and in a very exciting way,” he said.
Meanwhile, Klinsmann will be studying the collective in ways that can’t really be measured. He'll know it when he sees it.
“It’s a lot about the momentum,” he said of a World Cup. “It’s about sustaining two months of camp -- being able to be a real team player, being able to put yourself into service for a bigger cause and something that is far bigger than us as an individual. It’s about being able to suffer, to sacrifice yourself, for that huge event. It’s about not losing your temper, not losing your nerves when it really kind of gets tricky. And there will be many tricky moments going into the next two months.”