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Klinsmann checks out understudies

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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

TRAVEL PLANS

Fans and players can now rejoice. USA books World Cup ticket after a long, arduous journey.

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men’s national team in the summer of 2011, he knew he needed to build up the side’s depth. During his time in charge, he’s made a rather elaborate show of shaking up an ossified hierarchy. He’s pushed his players to aspire to more in their club careers. And in so doing, he has created a real and intense competition at every position.

Indeed, if you try putting together a 23-man squad for next summer’s World Cup from your armchair out of the pool of talent now available to Klinsmann, you’ll not only find it devoid of mere passengers -- perhaps for the first time in the history of US Soccer -- but you’ll be forced to leave out perfectly worthy players too. This is either an accomplishment you can credit to Klinsmann’s account or a sign of growth of the sport here. Either way, the base on which the entire national team structure is built has grown larger and sturdier, to the benefit of all.

"This is exactly what we have been talking about for the last two years," Klinsmann told USSoccer.com upon releasing his roster. "You want to have your established player that is number one in his position being challenged. You want to have him on his toes and know that the next guy is waiting. … This is what we are working on. It keeps you hungry and motivated and focused."

Never have these newfound spoils been so pertinent. The USA wraps up its World Cup qualifying campaign with a home game in Kansas City against Jamaica (live, Friday, 6:36 p.m. ET) and a trip to Panama next week (live, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 9 p.m. ET). The games are meaningless -- the USA have already secured their berth in Brazil -- but the team Klinsmann has available to him is particularly threadbare.

The team’s playmakers, attacking midfielder Clint Dempsey and central midfielder Michael Bradley are both out with a hamstring and ankle injury, respectively. Fabian Johnson, who is a back by trade but has been playing on the left wing for the US of late, also isn’t on the roster because of an ankle problem. Neither are backup center back Clarence Goodson and striker Herculez Gomez with both of them not yet fully recovered from knee injuries. Central defenders Omar Gonalez and John Brooks are both absent because of a hip strain and and an arm issue respectively.

AMERICANS OVERSEAS

Want to find out the top performances from US players abroad? See here.

But that isn’t the half of it. Of the players that are on the small, 20-man roster, many are question marks. Winger Alejandro Bedoya missed an FC Nantes game last weekend because he was sick. Forward Landon Donovan reportedly has been playing through an ankle injury.

And plain weird is the controversy surrounding central midfielder Jermaine Jones. German tabloid Bild reported that Jones was droppd for last week’s Champions League game against FC Basel because of a poor performance and that he’d be undergoing meniscus surgery which would rule him out for at least a month. It even had a quote from Jones confirming the latter. But he refuted this on Twitter, and US Soccer also put out a statement saying Jones was good to go and won’t address his knee issues until later. Whatever the case may be, Jones clearly isn’t 100 percent.

These issues might be compounded: Jones, Donovan, Bedoya, goalkeeper Tim Howard and defender Brad Evans are all carrying yellow cards into the matches. If any of them draw another one against Jamaica, they will subsequently be suspended for the Panama game. That means a number of second-tier players are likely to get serious minutes -- defender/midfielder Geoff Cameron, midfielders Kyle Beckerman and Sacha Kljestan, and forward Aron Johannsson are the top candidates.

But if ever there was a good moment for so much misfortune to befall the United Staes, now is the time. Thanks to the gutsy 2-0 home win over Mexico on Sept. 10 -- when they were also without Bradley and the suspended Cameron, striker Jozy Altidore and defender Matt Besler -- qualification is already wrapped up. Klinsmann is rather keen on winning the remaining games for psychological gains, but where the Americans ultimately place among the top three of the six-team, 10-game hexagonal round makes no difference.

The same isn’t true for one of USA's opponents. While Jamaica is winless and practically eliminated -- its odds to make it into the playoffs with New Zealand awarded to the fourth-placed team are very long -- the second game against Panama could help seal archrivals Mexico’s fate. Panama currently sits in that fourth place. They are even on points, goal difference and head-to-head (their first game ended 0-0 in Panama) with fifth-placed Mexico but have scored more goals. They will play each other again in Mexico City on Friday. So the second games of this international window, when Mexico also travels to Costa Rica, could well decide things.

And that gives Klinsmann the prospect of at least one highly competitive game to really test that depth. Double-cover at every position on paper hardly guarantees that there will be no drop-off when a first-stringer is unavailable, so Klinsmann is correct to be deliberate in creating competition for starting jobs.

Every four years, national teams at the World Cup have to make do with injuried and players short on fitness following grueling club seasons. The ability of those who play in their stead goes some way in determining where your country’s campaign ends. So, as Klinsmann knows well, you had better devote some attention and resources to your understudies.

Now he’ll have as good a chance as any.

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