Tuesday, March 19, 2013


If the United States qualifies for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, it will be this country's most white-knuckle ride to soccer's showcase event since Paul Caligiuri uncorked the Shot Heard Round the World and helped send the Yanks to Italia '90. Almost a generation since the days of Bob Gansler's college all-stars, the US national team is in anything but rude health as it prepares for two critical World Cup qualifiers in the next week.

US coach Juergen Klinsmann released on Monday his roster for the qualifiers at home against Costa Rica (on Friday) and at Mexico (March 26). However, the absences were just as noteworthy, if not more so, than the players included.

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa - 5/3 SO), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire – 0/0), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake – 0/0)
DEFENDERS (6): Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake – 0/0), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City – 0/0), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City – 6/0), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy – 1/0), Clarence Goodson (Brondby – 5/0), Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes – 0/0)
MIDFIELDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla – 26/6), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake – 2/0), Michael Bradley (Roma – 20/5), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana – 1/0), Maurice Edu (Bursaspor – 10/0), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04 – 6/0), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht – 13/0), Brek Shea (Stoke City – 2/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City – 4/0)
FORWARDS (5): Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar – 18/6), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna – 2/0), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur – 27/11), Herculez Gomez (Santos – 6/2), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC – 12/10)
Note that the numbers in parentheses indicate World Cup qualifying caps and goals or shutouts. Beasley, for instance, has 97 total caps with the national team.

What is most concerning to US fans is that the defense that looked so shaky in the loss at Honduras that opened the Hexagonal is even more wafer-thin now. Just look at the list of players unavailable through injury or illness: Tim Howard, Edgar Castillo, Timmy Chandler, Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson, Jonathan Spector, Jose Francisco Torres, Danny Williams, Jay DeMerit, Steven Beitashour -- and that doesn't even include Landon Donovan, who was last seen on a vision quest in Cambodia. US captain Carlos Bocanegra was left out of the squad after struggling to get playing time with Spanish second-tier side Racing Santander, and fellow veterans Michael Parkhurst (who can fill in at either fullback spot) and Oguchi Onyewu were also deemed unfit for selection. Klinsmann even passed on a bit of psychological warfare when he elected not to call up Michael Freaking Orozco Fiscal, who scored the goal that gave the United States its first victory in Azteca Stadium.

The US national team has been thin at fullback for more than a decade, particularly on the left side -- remember Bruce Arena using wispy wingers Beasley and Bobby Convey as left backs or the fast-tracked nationalization of David Regis? -- but this is an entirely new level. Beltran and Morrow are the only full-time fullbacks in the squad, though Cameron often plays there for Stoke and both Beasley and Shea have filled that role in the past. Would Klinsmann scrap the nascent Cameron-Gonzalez center back partnership in order to put the Stoke man out wide and play Edu or Goodson centrally? With Guzan all but nailed on to start in goal in place of Howard, it would be strange for Klinsmann to sacrifice what little experience and understanding in defense his squad has forged thus far. Cameron and Edu started at center back in the aforementioned win in Azteca, but that had as much to do with a disinterested Mexico and Howard at his superhuman best as it did with the US defense. Edu is best left on the bench as a sub who can fill in at center back or defensive midfield. That leaves Beltran at right back and one of Beasley or Shea at left back -- OK against Costa Rica, when the United States will have to do most of the attacking, but hardly desirable during the inevitable rearguard action at Azteca.

Don't expect Klinsmann to budge from his reliance on clogging the midfield, especially with his patchwork back line. Bradley and Jones are mortal locks to start, leaving the other 2-3 midfield spots open for guys to add more defensive cover (Beckerman, Edu) or attacking width (Corona, Shea, Beasley, Kljestan, Zusi). Dempsey and Eddie Johnson are listed as forwards, but Johnson frequently has found himself on the wing during Klinsmann's tenure and Dempsey is no stranger to playing wide midfield. The forward places, for once, are fairly settled. Altidore is scoring for fun in the Netherlands, Gomez's hot streak in Mexico continues and Boyd is back in the fold after proving his worth as an impact sub. The biggest question for the forwards is what kind of service they can expect from a midfield whose first priority could be covering for the back line rather than creating chances.

Taking a roster packed with inexperienced players and others not yet fully fit, possibly forcing the few experienced heads to continue playing out of position, against arguably the two most consistent and most talented teams in the region? Uff-da. There is width in this squad, which is an improvement on previous Klinsmann rosters, but how much leash they will receive remains to be seen. There's also the issue of who will fill in as captain in the absence of Bocanegra and Howard. Bradley seems like the obvious pick, what with his inherent leadership qualities and extensive experience for club and country, but there is a very real chance Klinsmann goes with Jones -- a favorite of the German's, or at least when the Schalke man isn't injured or suspended for his latest bout of indiscipline. Picking Jones could be a risk for Klinsmann, and not just because of the midfielder's volatility. There is growing concern that Klinsmann relies too heavily on imported talent, and while the players called in are certainly Americans and entitled to play for this country (which prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, let's not forget), his choice could be interpreted as yet more evidence that he has more faith in players raised outside the US soccer system and that players produced in America just aren't good enough. That's a hefty charge to lay against someone who was hired to oversee a remake of American soccer from top to bottom.

As ever, though, good results on the field make for a great deodorant. Three points against Costa Rica -- and all home games in the Hex are a must-win -- and the United States is back on schedule. A point at Azteca would make the Honduras result much easier to stomach, but as Mexico has only ever lost once there in competitive matches and the best the United States has done in the altitude and smog is a golden 0-0 draw, fans should live more in hope than expectation. Then again, the United States was missing four starters even before Jeff Agoos' red card in that qualifier in 1997, and it would be so very like the USMNT under Klinsmann to snatch a result in Mexico after getting thoroughly outplayed in Honduras. With Bradley, Dempsey, Edu and Zusi set for a one-game suspension after they receive their next yellow card, the stage appears to be set for a Hollywood moment for the German-cum-Californian whose team's flair for the dramatic almost matches his own.

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