Life on the cusp of a World Cup appearance demands a keen appreciation for balance. The next few weeks will dangle the dream of a lifetime within grasp. Only those players with steady hands will devise a way to grab it.
The need for composure and diligence at this tenuous point is not lost on the MLS stars trying to earn their way to Brazil. Their previous work only counts for so much at this stage. Their fate hinges on the present. It is an exacting and perilous perch for domestic stars tasked with keeping their attention trained on their club duties as they prepare to make one last push to seal a place on US manager Jürgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster.
“It’s been hectic,” Columbus defender Michael Parkhurst told Inside MLS last week. “Of course, anyone who has a chance for the World Cup, we’re all thinking about it. You’re putting your club team first because without your club team and without good performances, you’re not going to have a chance to go to Brazil. In the back of our minds, we all know that there’s a great opportunity for all of us to get on that plane, get that experience of playing in the World Cup and hopefully help our country have great success down there.”
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The path toward that objective starts with constant achievement at home. Klinsmann isn’t particularly interested in doling out guarantees or protecting reputations as he surveys his options. There is no relief from the constant evaluation. Every match presents yet another chance to reaffirm credentials established during qualifying and underline potential strengths before the start of World Cup training camp on May 14 in Palo Alto, Calif.
Players cannot afford to impair those efforts by looking ahead to possible international commitments or wondering where they might stand on the depth chart. They must march forward day by day to ensure their base – namely, their current form and those critical club performances – does not show any untimely cracks.
“I approach it the same way I do every year,” Sporting Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi said after his side’s 2-0 defeat at New England on Saturday. “The schedule may be a little bit busier, but I can’t let that affect the way I go about my business. If you start thinking too far ahead, you find yourself out of rhythm. I’ll take it one game at a time and approach every game the same way.”
By placing the necessary emphasis on those domestic commitments, the contenders combine their regular obligations with their preparations for the rigors ahead. Frequent match practice constitutes an important component of the overall case, but a good spell in MLS isn’t necessarily enough to claim a spot on the final roster submitted on June 2 or face Ghana, Portugal and Germany shortly thereafter. There are mental, physical and tactical thresholds to meet along the way, too.
Bolstering every facet of fitness and performance on and off the field requires considerable application during the grind of a demanding period. There is no room for complacency at this point. Fine margins comprise the difference between a place in training camp, a spot on the plane or a wait until the next cycle. And if it takes a little extra work to stay on the right side of the ledger, then so be it.
“It’s being aware of what’s ahead, but not looking too far ahead,” Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler said. “It’s basically focusing on each week and putting everything you have into that week, trying to stay sharp, trying to put in good performances on the weekend, trying to be a leader for your club team. You try to find that little bit of extra bit of fitness, that extra level to push yourself.”
The additional component may even emerge in a different place on the field. Several players in this versatile squad accept central roles for their clubs and slide into other positions for their country. There are few opportunities to hone those skills on the domestic front due to the inherent needs at club level, but the players must stay sharp in those alternate positions nevertheless.
Parkhurst, for instance, partners Costa Rican international Giancarlo González in central defense for the Crew and plies his trade as a fullback under Klinsmann. He knows the demands well from his experience on the right with Nordsjælland in Denmark and from his time with the national team, but the requirements of the role still need some reinforcement and repetition. It is a responsibility he accepts on his own time as he tries to secure his spot in the squad.
“In my case, I’m playing a different position,” Parkhurst said. “I need to get extra crosses in during the week after training that I don’t get within training because I’m not playing that position. I want to be ready and sharp in case I do get called in May. It’s just little things like that. You’re focused on both things at the same time. They go hand in hand.”
Focus is the key word across the board. It isn’t enough to excel on one front or the other or succeed in only one segment while another slacks off a bit. This entire process – from claiming a place on the training camp roster through the fight for playing time in Brazil, if everything proceeds according to plan – requires concentration and dedication to every task at hand.
At this point, there isn’t enough latitude to leave anything to chance. It is why each day and each task matters a great deal. It is why each player in contention plans to take every possible measure and precaution over the next few weeks for both club and country in order to reinforce his claims one of those precious tickets to Brazil.
“As far as I’m concerned, the World Cup is still quite a ways away,” Zusi said. “It’s a game-by-game approach for me. Your play with your club is going to determine whether you’re called in or not. That’s all I’m focused on.”