By FRANCO PANIZO
It did not take very long after Thursday’s U.S. Men’s National Team roster announcement to realize that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has a plethora of options to choose from for next month’s World Cup qualifiers.
Selecting which players would be available was no easy task, though.
After a successful summer in which the U.S. won 12 straight games with essentially two different groups of players, Klinsmann had to make the difficult decision of trimming those teams into one. The result of that was a very strong 23-man squad that will look to win on the road against Costa Rica and at home against arch-rivals Mexico, but one that is also missing some very capable and deserving players.
“Obviously, as you can see on the entire roster, there are some 50/50 situations that we have to make a decision on,” said Klinsmann. “If it’s Michael Parkhurst, if it’s a Clarence Goodson, if it’s a Chris Wondolowski or Brad Davis, Jose Torres, Joe Corona, Sacha Kljestan, those are all names and players that deserve to be on the roster as well.
“But at the end of the day we decided to go first with only 23 (players). We know that the problem is that we have nine players going into that (Costa Rica) game with yellow cards, so anything can happen after that game, so we put everyone on notice to stay in touch with us and if there are changes to be made after that game, we’ll make those changes. But we feel very comfortable with these guys for Costa Rica. It was not easy to make those decisions.”
One of the more interesting choices that Klinsmann made was summoning young centerback John Anthony Brooks over Goodson. The Hertha Berlin defender pales in comparison to Goodson in terms of experience on the international level (with just one cap to his name after debuting in a 4-3 victory over Bosnia & Herzegovina in a friendly earlier this month), but Klinsmann stated he called in Brooks due to a combination of his promising talent and other experienced central defenders being called in.
“We (saw) John Brooks in Bosnia, but not only in that game but also over the last one-, one-and-a-half years, observing him, watching him, visiting him and all that stuff,” said Klinsmann. “It gives us the feeling that there’s a very, very special player coming through the ranks. We have the experienced guys in camp with Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Omar (Gonzalez), so we feel fully loaded there.”
Klinsmann also talked about some of the more experienced players on the team. The U.S. head coach claimed that he expects both Graham Zusi and Clint Dempsey to be fully fit for next month’s round of qualifiers despite their recent returns to action, and added that he would take a wait-and-see approach with where Landon Donovan could be deployed in his first camp back with the Americans’ A team.
“He got himself back into the team during the Gold Cup and he did a wonderful job there,” Klinsmann said of Donovan, who was named the regional tournament’s Most Valuable Player in July. “Now, it’s about kind of putting the pieces together with both rosters from the May-June period and the Gold Cup and we’ll find there the best way possible for everybody involved.
“The key element is getting results in Costa Rica and against Mexico and once we have (the players) in camp, we’ll see how they’re doing and how the pieces will fit. Having Landon back in the picture is another really, really good option for us so we’re looking forward to it.”
Things are a lot more clear as far as Fabian Johnson’s position is concerned. Johnson has spent time as both a left back and left midfielder in recent months for the U.S. and done fairly well in both spots, but Klinsmann left no room for confusion when asked about where he sees Johnson playing next month.
“(DaMarcus) Beasley is set in the left back role and Fabian is set in the left winger role for right now,” said Klinsmann. “It’s good to know he can play (there), even on the other side he can play right wing and right back, and that gives us always some options to pull if needed. Right now, we see him very, very strong on the left wing, in midfield, and Beasley behind him.”
Another versatile player whose status Klinsmann touched on was Eric Lichaj. Klinsmann admitted he was aware of Lichaj’s strong start in Nottingham Forest’s season in the Championship, but added that now was not the time to bring in the 24-year-old defender, who has yet to be selected to a U.S. roster during Klinsmann’s reign.
“We follow him, we see that he’s playing on a regular basis for Nottingham Forest and he’s in our picture,” said Klinsmann. “But now going into Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying, it would be not the right call for him because he hasn’t been with us yet during my time and now is not that time to kind of experiment and see another face real quick. But we observe him, we watch him, we know that he’s back in a swing.”
Regardless of the omissions of Lichaj and others, the U.S. still boast a strong team that is capable of securing an early World Cup berth during next month’s qualifiers. To do that, the Americans will likely need go on the road and beat a talented Costa Rica team on Sept. 6 while also defeating a struggling Mexico side at home in Columbus, Ohio four days later.
The former task seems like the more challenging one given that the Americans’ have never won a road qualifier against the Ticos, but Klinsmann believes the team he selected has the skill and mental fortitude to change that.
“It has a lot to do with confidence and you build confidence only over time,” said Klinsmann when asked how the U.S. plan to grab their first qualifying victory in Costa Rica. “Obviously, we changed a couple of things over the last two years and we try to kind of go forward even after 1-0 leads. We want to score the second one, we don’t kind of want to sit back and we changed quite a few things also on the mental side of it. It’s kind of played out already in a couple of occasions, if it’s friendlies or games like in Jamaica (in June) or at the Azteca Stadium with the 0-0 (draw in March).
“We have a lot of respect for Costa Rica and this is important: that the players always respect their opponent and know what to expect. They can expect a very, very intense game, a high-energy game, but I think we have the quality and the mindset to be confident enough to say, ‘We’re going to go there for three points.’ This is what we’re trying to build. Even if you go down a goal, there’s no reason to panic because you can still turn it around.
“More and more, this belief is getting bigger and it’s growing throughout the entire group. We have a deeper roster than ever before and hopefully we can take that mindset down to San Jose and win their for the first time ever in World Cup qualifying.”