LONDON -- Jurgen Klinsmann has been talking about youth and potential and the next wave of American talent since the World Cup ended more than four months ago. He’s called up uncapped teenagers, an NASL player and a college student while giving former role players more responsibility. He reminded everyone again Friday night that with Brazil in the rear-view mirror and the CONCACAF Gold Cup still eight months away, the time to experiment is now.
But Klinsmann also knew that Friday’s opponent, Colombia, was as dangerous a team as there is the world. Los Cafeteros dazzled at the World Cup in Brazil before being bludgeoned by the hosts in a contentious quarterfinal, and in James Rodríguez and Juan Cuadrado, Colombia boasts two of the sport’s most dynamic and creative players.
Friday night’s friendly at Craven Cottage, the humble but historic (and cacophonic) venue on the Thames, was not the right time to take chances in midfield. Colombia would be coming, and Klinsmann needed someone who could help the U.S. weather the storm.
Enter Kyle Beckerman, the veteran defensive midfielder who hadn’t played for his country since the World Cup group stage finale against Germany.
Despite his solid play in the tournament’s first three matches, Beckerman was benched for the Round of 16 showdown with Belgium. The Red Devils then cut through the U.S. and were taken to overtime thanks largely to a superhuman performance from goalkeeper Tim Howard.
With Jermaine Jones making his transition to center back and Michael Bradley unavailable after foot surgery, Klinsmann said Beckerman, now an international veteran at 32, was the best choice to help slow down the Colombians.
“Kyle is, in a certain way, a huge role model for this entire team,” Klinsmann said following Friday’s 2-1 loss, which wasn’t as close as the score might indicate. “When I see here and there that we can try something where we don’t need a pure No. 6 [defensive midfielder], I ask him, in October, ‘Kyle, don’t be mad at me when I leave you at home, I want to see a couple other guys,’ he’s cool with that.”
Klinsmann continued, “But when you prepare for a team like Colombia, you also know a little bit what you need and what you don’t need. In a game like this, you need a No. 6.”
The U.S. needed a whole lot more than Beckerman on Friday. The Americans created a few decent scoring chances in isolation and even took the lead on Jozy Altidore’s early penalty kick. But the Colombians carried the play and put the U.S. under almost constant pressure. There were few American bright spots other than Beckerman, who was close to his tireless and unselfish best. He helped keep the U.S. relatively organized during a bend-but-don’t-break first half and tried to build a little rhythm with the ball when it came his way, failing to complete just one of 15 passes played inside the U.S. half. He was also responsible for one of just five successful U.S. passes into the Colombian penalty area during open play, a 37th-minute cross to debutante Rubio Rubin. Beckerman’s five interceptions were second on the U.S. to Jones' six and his 10 recoveries led the team.
Beckerman rarely looked flustered or overwhelmed, even against long odds. It was a performance that reminded everyone he remains in the picture, both for his role as a “giver,” which Klinsmann mentions every time Beckerman’s name comes up, and for his continued ability to stabilize and steel the squad.
“[Klinsmann] let me know about bringing in some younger guys, which I expected with the next World Cup so far away, but he [said] we have some big tournaments as well in the near future," Beckerman said of his post-World Cup transition. "He just told us about how with the young guys it’s about leading by example, letting them know what it is to be a pro and how serious to take this national team. That’s something I’ll take on whether he asks me or not.”
Ask any U.S. player about Beckerman and you’ll get nothing but reverence in return. He does the thankless, low-profile stuff that wins games, or keeps an overmatched team in them. Midfielder Mix Diskerud, who tried in vain on Friday to fill a playmaking role in front of Beckerman, said following the loss, “I feel safe when I have him behind me.”
Beckerman, an MLS lifer who’s been a linchpin at Real Salt Lake since 2007, has had his international ups and downs and was dropped altogether by Klinsmann in the fall of 2012. He faced criticism from the press and fans, many of whom wondered if he had the skill and speed to play at the highest level. There were times he seemed a longshot to play a significant role in Brazil, but his reliability and consistency won the critics over.
Beckerman is not taking that for granted.
“I definitely feel a part of the team," he said Friday. "When you go through a World Cup, that helps you have that feeling. But I think you’ve always got to prove it. I know 2018 is a long way away but I’m not ready to just say, ‘I’m not going to go because I’m going to be that old.’ I want to keep fighting for a spot and keep trying to stay in the team. I know [Klinsmann] is going to be looking at young guys. Of course, I’m going to help him. I’m going to help those guys feel comfortable, for sure.
"But I’m also going to make it hard for Jurgen to just go with those guys … No matter how old I am, I can still get better and we still can as a team.”
Until the U.S. is a team that can move and control the ball against the best sides in the world, it’s going to need someone like Beckerman, someone who will do the little things and the dirty work and whose positioning and knack for a timely intervention can help make a difference. He came closer than any other U.S. player to doing so consistently against Colombia.
“Whenever he comes into our group, he’s 100 percent focused,” Klinsmann said. “He’s all about business and he seems that he’s only getting younger. He’s playing on an extremely high level. He can outrun even young players. He always has another gear in him. … It’s great for us as a coaching staff to have a player like him.”