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Tougher challenge awaits United States

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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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If the January United States national team camp, and the two friendlies scheduled during that time, is a crash course in what it takes to make the national team, then Professor Jurgen Klinsmann’s next test will cover playing in front of a hostile crowd far from home.

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The US takes on Panama on Wednesday in Panama City, and while the match won’t have the intensity of a World Cup qualifier, it is a safe bet the home fans won’t be welcoming the visiting Americans with open arms. After all, the US is a regional power, and just happens to be the same team that has eliminated Panama from the past four CONCACAF Gold Cups.

That history alone should provide Klinsmann with just the kind of atmosphere he’s hoping to face as he puts his collection of national team prospects through a test that should be significantly tougher than the one posed on Saturday by Venezuela in the US team’s 1-0 victory.

The current US squad may be light on national team caps, but most are plenty familiar with the hostility of Central American road trips. The CONCACAF Champions League has offered plenty of experience for the likes of Geoff Cameron, A.J. De La Garza and Jeff Larentowicz, who have all taken the trip south and faced the harsh hospitality of fans who wanted nothing more than for their teams to beat any and every American team.

“We know what to expect down there, the crowd’s going to be hostile for sure, but I’m looking forward to that,” Cameron said. “In CONCACAF (with the Houston Dynamo), we played in a bunch of places. Saprissa, Panama, El Salvador, Guatemala, all those places.

“When you go to places and they’re burning the American flag and throwing batteries and quarters at you, nothing can really rattle your cage.”

Ricardo Clark could be given a starting role against Panama after scoring the winner against Venezuela. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The atmosphere will be a unique national team experience for most of the players taking part on Wednesday, but one player who has represented the US in similar settings before is Ricardo Clark, who figures to play a larger role against Panama after coming on as a substitute and scoring the winning goal against Venezuela.

Clark’s national team revival comes as a bit of a surprise considering his disappearance from the national team picture coincided with an absence of playing time with German club Eintracht Frankfurt, and came after a disappointing showing at the 2010 World Cup. He didn’t figure to make his way back into the picture, particularly given all the other options in defensive midfield, but Klinsmann saw something in Clark and kept tabs on him in Germany before eventually bringing him back into the fold for the January friendlies.

“Ricardo came in and you could see he was struggling because he hadn’t played in many months,” Klinsmann said. “He tried hard to catch up with the group, and he did it every day a bit more, but I know that once he’s on the field he’s a player that is technically gifted and he can play one-touch football.”

Klinsmann first pulled Clark from the national team wilderness against Mexico last August, when he gave Clark his first national team appearance in more than a year. Clark’s fortunes in Germany didn’t improve though, and he has been starved for playing time at Eintracht Frankfurt. Klinsmann contacted Clark’s manager and asked to bring him into camp to see for himself just where Clark was in terms of form. It was a call that came as a bit of a welcome surprise for Clark.

<a href="http://msn.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/video?vid=f86d56da-dc63-4444-bb14-c864bf14a19b" _cke_saved_href="http://msn.foxsports.com/foxsoccer/video?vid=f86d56da-dc63-4444-bb14-c864bf14a19b" target="_new" title="">Greatest USMNT players</a>

“It felt good because I hadn’t been with the national team in a while,” Clark said. “I tried to stay as fit as I could. I play scrimmage teams all the time there and the training in Germany is pretty rigorous, so it wasn’t too hard to stay fit. I just wanted to make the most of my opportunity when I came in.

“Goals definitely help build confidence, and help get your name out there, it can’t hurt,” Clark said of his winner against Venezuela. “I’m just hoping I keep building off of it.”

It wasn’t just Clark’s goal that could earn him a start against Panama. He worked very well with Jermaine Jones in central midfield, covering plenty of ground and moving the ball around well. He showed flashes of the form he displayed when he was a national team regular just two years ago.

Wednesday’s match should also offer an opportunity for several other players who impressed against Venezuela. Fullback Zach Loyd looked sharp at left back and could merit a longer look from Klinsmann, while forwards Chris Wondolowski and C.J. Sapong both played well as second-half substitutes.

Whoever Klinsmann turns to will be facing a tough Panama side with several of the players who were on the Gold Cup team that beat the US in group play before dropping a hard-fought 1-0 decision in the semifinals. Forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada will be a much stiffer challenge for Cameron and Parkhurst in central defense, while Gabriel Gomez should offer a good test for Jones and whoever else Klinsmann turns to in central midfield.

What is clear is that Wednesday’s test is the tougher of the two set out by Professor Klinsmann, and those who leave Panama City with the highest marks stand the best chances of graduating to the full senior team in the coming months.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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