SAO PAULO – Jurgen Klinsmann has acknowledged that there is no “right” World Cup roster – there’s only a roster that was right for him. He’s anticipated criticism and second-guessing and said even before paring his team from 30 players to 23 that, “Every coach would probably name a different 30-man roster. No coach would choose exactly the same 30 players.”
Then he went and cut 2010 World Cup hero Landon Donovan, qualifying stalwart Brad Evans, in-form forward Terrence Boyd and Clarence Goodson, the team’s most experienced central defender, among others. Eddie Johnson, the U.S.’s second leading scorer during qualifying (tied with Jozy Altidore), didn’t even make the preliminary roster.
There is no way to know, of course, whether another coach’s 23-man team would have finished second in a first-round quartet that featured Germany, Portugal and Ghana. It was one of this World Cup’s most treacherous groups. Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where Donovan already scored a couple goals, Boyd seamlessly filled in for an injured Altidore and Goodson was able to stay with Silvestre Varela in the final minute against Portugal.
But in this World Cup, there’s little denying that Klinsmann’s 23 have done the job, from the big names like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard to several players who either weren’t obvious starters or whose very inclusion raised eyebrows.
“We wouldn’t be there without John Brooks’ goal against Ghana or DeAndre’s movement in the game and so forth,” Klinsmann said here Friday as his team started preparing for its round-of-16 match-up with Belgium. “This group is only as good as its bench, as its players coming off the bench and making the difference. This group is only as good as its 23rd player, and this is what they hear every day from our end -- from the coaching side -- that everyone is so tremendously important.”
Brooks and Yedlin are two players whose playing time surely surprised some. Brooks, 21, had an up-and-down 2013-14 season with Hertha Berlin and was poor in the U.S.’s loss to Ukraine in March. Yedlin, 20, has speed and talent to spare but was seen as an unfinished defensive product compared to the likes of Michael Parkhurst, who was left behind. Each had only four caps to his name, and Brooks, a German-American dual national, hadn't even been cap-tied to the USA when the World Cup kicked off.
But, as Klinsmann said, the U.S. would be on its way home without them. Brooks was a surprise choice over Omar Gonzalez to relieve an injured Matt Besler against Ghana. He wound up scoring the 86th-minute game-winner.
Yedlin entered the Portugal match at right midfield rather than right back, which proved to be an inspired decision by the manager.
"[Klinsmann told me that he] may throw me out there, because we needed some speed on that wing, but I hadn’t practiced at all so it’s my first time,” Yedlin said. "[Right back Fabian Johnson] let me know where to be defensively. That was the biggest thing for me.”
Yedlin’s bold run to the end line and pass back toward the top of the penalty area was a key moment in the build-up to Dempsey’s 81st-minute goal.
“That’s why you build a team. You hope that the next guy can come in,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said.
Against Germany, Gonzalez was the “next guy.” The L.A. Galaxy stalwart made the 23-man team but lost his starting spot to Geoff Cameron then appeared to have slipped down the depth chart further following Brooks’ heroics. But Cameron had a rough game against Portugal and the coaching staff “wanted to give [him] a break,” according to Klinsmann.
“We don’t kind of have the luxury to say that all the players are going to go every four days in games and are always on the highest level,” he said.
Gonzalez was outstanding against the Germans. The game plan, fellow center back Matt Belser said, focused on the fact that Die Mannschaft “love playing those short passes and they love going through the middle. We wanted to take that away from them – that’s their strength – and force them to beat us on the outside.”
That meant passes would be played into the penalty area, where Gonzalez was rock solid. Following an early miskick that he called a “little hiccup”, he settled in and cleared the dangerous space in front of Howard, highlighted by a spectacular tackle on Germany marksman Thomas Müller in the 14th minute.
"I found I was starting a couple days ago … and when they told me I was going to start I always told myself I needed to be ready no matter what happened. Here we are the third game and my name is getting called. Obviously, I was very nervous but once the whistle blew I was ready to go,” Gonzalez said following the 1-0 loss that felt like a win. “I haven't been getting much luck since the very beginning of camp with my little [knee] injury, but I've always said I was going to stay ready. I got my opportunity today, and I'm just happy I could step on the field and do whatever I could to help this team go through."
That readiness is key, and it’s something that Klinsmann and his staff are keen on fostering. He monitors and challenges and expects contributions from every player on the squad – even the third-string goalkeeper.
“The work that Nick Rimando is doing in the background, keeping this chemistry going, the spirit going, everybody focused, is tremendous,” Klinsmann said Friday. “And so, I just told this morning to those guys again, you got to be ready now to come in, no matter who you are, because we’re going to get yellow cards. We’re going to get injuries. Somebody will be tired.”
Kyle Beckerman, who finally pushed his way into the first 11 ahead of the final World Cup tune-up match against Nigeria, said the players believe that there are minutes available to earn. Klinsmann likes to tinker, and his World Cup roster decisions confirmed that nothing is promised or sacred.
“The main thing is, I’ve always tried to be ready,” Beckerman said. “With Jurgen, you don’t know. He keeps you on your toes and like he always says, nobody’s guaranteed a spot and stuff like that. So I think when that’s the case, there’s always a chance to get the starting spot.”
Klinsmann likely will make more changes for Tuesday’s game against Belgium, and he’s surely earned the benefit of the doubt here in Brazil. His former Germany teammate Oliver Bierhoff, now a Deutscher Fussball-Bund official, said last week that Klinsmann, “Has unbelievable energy and a real instinct for situations. He doesn’t shy away from confrontation has the courage to insist upon or implement things he is convinced about.”
At this point, with the program’s fifth World Cup knockout match of the modern era on the horizon, Klinsmann’s convictions have been vindicated. The players in whom he maintained faith, like Jones and Beckerman, and those whose inclusion was questioned, like Yedlin and Brooks, have delivered.
“It’s absolutely no big deal getting criticized. It’s just part of the environment,” Klinsmann said Friday. “Everybody is on board. Everybody is ready and everybody gets his game in this World Cup. Hopefully they get a couple more games in this World Cup.”