Juggling the present, future one of USA's World Cup predicaments
MAY 14, 2014 3:03p ET
Before it takes off for Brazil, the proverbial plane makes a final boarding call. Almost four years into this cycle, it has already crisscrossed the world, making stops in soccer temples in Mexico City and France and Scotland and elsewhere as well as grungy stadiums in Honduras and Jamaica. Now, there is one last hurdle to negotiate for the United States men's national team: the preparatory camp. Once its members clear that, the plane becomes real, taking 23 Americans to the 2014 World Cup on June 8.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has assembled all 30 men -- well, 29 men and one boy, but we'll get to that -- from his preliminary roster at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. starting on Wednesday. There, they will train heavily for 13 days before playing a friendly with Azerbaijan on May 27. They face Turkey in Harrison, NJ on June 1 after yet another few days of training.
On June 2 Klinsmann must make his final cuts as the team makes its way down to Jacksonville, Fla. where it will train some more, and then take on Nigeria on June 7 before leaving for their Sao Paulo base the following day.
But first, there are many affairs to be tended to and lots to sort out during this camp. For one, seven-thirtieth of the herd must be culled. And this makes for tricky choices, boiling down to the adequate cover for every position, which in turn hinges on the systems and formations Klinsmann intends to deploy against his group stage opponents -- in order: Ghana, Portugal and Germany.
Lately, Klinsmann has gone with a 4-5-1 formation. But against Mexico on April 2, he went with a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, a surprising departure from the norm. If he intends to use both in Brazil -- as he probably ought to in order to combat his opponents' differing strengths and attacking focal points -- that requires yet more consideration of how to use up his precious 23 spots. For instance: if you're thinking of playing with two strikers more often than one, do you bring extra cover for that line? Or do you bring that midfielder who can also slot in on defense?
But those are relatively minor points to ponder when you consider that finding adequate personnel to fill several positions is still fraught. In 2010, left back the problem position. This time around, it's both left back and right back. Steve Cherundolo has retired, failing to drag himself out of a morass of injuries, and so there is no logical heir on the right. On the left, there are seemingly fewer good options still.
Brad Evans is the tenuous incumbent at right back. He is a central midfielder by trade, however. And while he has held up well against regional CONCACAF opposition, he might be hard-pressed to withstand Portugal's World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo -- so would any other man, in fairness. Timmy Chandler is back in the fold after a 15-month absence. His commitment has wavered and while he is undoubtedly a good Bundesliga right back, he has hardly been unimpeachable for the USA. Finally, DeAndre Yedlin is in camp. The 20-year-old is a menace going forward and a capable defender. He is the right back of the future. But is he the right back of now? Probably not. Yet with one of these men Klinsmann must go. Unless he goes with Michael Parkhurst or Geoff Cameron, of course. But the former is better centrally and the latter gives you little going forward. Decisions, decisions.
Out on the left, DaMarcus Beasley seems to be holding down the job for now, but he isn't a real defender either. He made his career one line higher, as a left winger. Now 31, he has been reinvented. And while his speed is useful back there, he is still learning the trade defensively. Fabian Johnson had seemed like the most logical option there for a time, but he, too, is better going forward and can be a liability one-on-one. Parkhurst might be an option here as well.
The other big can of worms for Klinsmann to muck through is his front line. Jozy Altidore has been an automatic starter for the USA for half a decade now, even though he is only 24. Such has been the dearth of quality strikers in this player pool. His season with Sunderland was a disappointment after a triumphant run in the Netherlands. Landon Donovan and Aron Johannsson offer up the most intriguing alternatives, but perhaps only in supporting roles as second strikers. Clint Dempsey might still play behind Altidore, as he mostly has in recent years, or beside him. Or maybe Chris Wondolowskiâs prolific goalscoring in Major League Soccer will finally translate to the international game. Whatever solutions Klinsmann comes up with, he'll need some production out of his front line. Because no American striker has scored at a World Cup since Brian McBride in 2002.
Then there is the tricky equation of calibrating the present with an eye on the future. There is real value in taking a young player to a World Cup, even if you don't expect him to be much use to you until the next edition rolls around in four years' time. The experience is priceless. And so Yedlin could be a sensible inclusion. This is also true for John Brooks, a 21-year-old central defender who is mightily gifted but still raw. And even more so for 18-year-old Julian Green -- the young starlet mentioned further up -- who has yet to break into senior professional soccer. He is a prodigy of sorts on Bayern Munich's reserve team as a zippy winger with a penchant for scoring spectacular goals. But he has played just a few minutes of senior club soccer and just half an hour for the USA. There's no telling if he'll wither under the bright lights of the World Cup.
"They don’t have the experience like other players have," Klinsmann admitted earlier this week in a press conference about Yedlin and Green. " I think if you analyze both players, they have tremendous upside in their development curve going forward. We will see that now over the next three weeks if they are ready for a World Cup or not.”
These are the questions Klinsmann must answer for himself. And he has just three weeks and change to figure it all out.
“The next three weeks are definitely about the form they are in," said Klinsmann. "The players know I don’t have to name them right now; they know they have a battle ahead of them. It is a daily competition. They are part of that inner circle and now they have to show it."
If Klinsmann makes the wrong choices, he'll be second-guessed for many years. Or at least until 2018.