For a few days, the focus will be on Landon Donovan’s earthshaking omission from the U.S. national team’s 2014 World Cup roster (and it was earthshaking, trending globally on Twitter).
Then, as it should, the attention will shift toward the men going to Brazil, and there are few surprises on that list as well. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man World Cup team veers in several spots from the one he’s spent the past three years building. Donovan isn’t the only player who played a key recent role but will miss out on the tournament.
The squad announced Thursday afternoon does, however, seem to reflect Klinsmann’s ideal. It’s young and athletic for the most part and in the places it’s not, it features veteran players with the commitment and hunger the manager prioritizes – “givers” like Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski.
Klinsmann orchestrated a similar overhaul when he coached Germany eight years ago, tipping some sacred cows along the way. And he built the foundation of a team that has made the semifinals in each of its past four major competitions. The message has been clear for a while, but Klinsmann confirmed it Thursday. Fitness and focus are paramount. Playing proactive soccer at the international level puts unique demands on the mind and body. Pedigree is a luxury, or perhaps a distraction.
The Group of Death will be an 11-day gauntlet of three exceedingly difficult opponents in tough conditions across thousands of miles. It’s a challenge for the young and/or hungry. There are only five players on the 23-man squad who have played in a World Cup, a surprising number for a country about to participate in its seventh straight. It is indeed a new era.
As easy as it is to concentrate on Donovan’s exclusion, the names included on Klinsmann’s World Cup team are just as revealing. The surprises start in back, where DeAndre Yedlin, Timmy Chandler and John Brooks all earned the nod while Brad Evans and Clarence Goodson were cut.
Evans, 29, emerged as a key figure last summer and appeared to be sort of an incumbent at right back heading into camp, having started there in five of the final eight World Cup qualifiers. He lost out to Yedlin, a 20-year-old club teammate with two caps to his name and whose speed and skill are undeniable, but who still has the occasional defensive misadventure; and Chandler, 24, whose last outing with the U.S. was that Hexagonal disaster in Honduras 15 months ago. With Yedlin and Chandler joining Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley on the flanks, Klinsmann is indicating a preference for speed over positioning.
Speaking to the media last week at U.S. camp in Stanford, Calif., Chandler admitted he that he didn’t expect his invitation. Even the players don’t always know what to expect from their coach.
“I thought [my chance] had gone,” he said. “[Klinsmann] said I can have a chance [if] I work hard [at FC Nürnberg]. When he called me here to Stanford, I was very happy. Yeah, for sure surprised. But I think I worked very hard and that’s why.”
Brooks, 21, has played three times for the U.S. and struggled in his most recent outing against Ukraine. But he's big, young and promising, which was enough to beat out veteran Clarence Goodson. Geoff Cameron, who plays on the right for Stoke City, now appears to have a shot at starting in the middle.
In midfield, Klinsmann’s curveball is Julian Green, an 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger with all of three minutes of top-tier professional soccer to his credit. Tampa-born Green represented Germany, where he was raised, at the youth level and then filed for a permanent switch to the U.S. in March.
He then made his debut in the April 2 friendly against Mexico. His recruitment was regarded as a coup for the 2018 cycle, but Green’s inclusion over Donovan (regardless of whether the latter was labeled a forward) and Joe Corona is a sign that Klinsmann thinks Green is ready now. It’s a bold decision by a bold coach, especially considering Green’s youth and lack of familiarity with his U.S. teammates.
Up front, Wondolowski nipped Terrence Boyd for the fourth striker’s spot, leaving Jozy Altidore as the team's only natural target forward. The decision may have surprised some considering Boyd’s recent form for Rapid Vienna -- six goals in his final four games -- but Klinsmann has different standards for different players. There isn't a one-size-fits-all checklist. In Wondolowski, the manager saw someone who fit a need and, in a way, embodied what a World Cup team requires.
“Every time he comes to the national team environment, he gives you everything he has. He always goes 1,000 percent. He knows he’s getting evaluated by the coaches and what he’s doing day in, day out,” Klinsmann said after naming his 30-man preliminary roster. “We’re looking forward to working with Wondo, because it’s always a pleasure to have him in camp. He is a competitor. He is determined. You give him a one percent chance and he wants to make it 100 percent at the end of the day. He will be one of those drivers going into the next couple of weeks.”
And now he’s going to Brazil, along with a roster featuring a few eye-openers and one that was released a few days earlier than anticipated. FIFA needs the list of 23 by June 2 and Klinsmann spoke time and again about how valuable this camp would be and how many “50/50 cases” there were. No one expected a decision this early, which is why it shouldn't be much of surprise. Klinsmann enjoys keeping everyone on their toes.
“For the players, it’s very important to know that they are now a part of it and that they can relax [for] a second to know that they are on the list — they’re going to Brazil — and taking it from there. After almost 10 days of work right now, we thought the point now has come to make the decision,” Klinsmann said in a video released by U.S. Soccer on Thursday.
“So that gives us, I think, a bit more quality in everything we do, and it also gives the players a very clear picture of what is going on. Therefore, it’s exciting now that we have this part crossed off or checked off, and now, the players now what is their personal or individual case, and we can move forward.”