Monday, May 12, 2014

Klinsmann, Party of 30

Few things set tongues wagging across the soccersphere like a roster announcement, especially when it's right before a World Cup. There weren't too many surprises when Jurgen Klinsmann released his 30-man preliminary roster for the US national team, but the ones that were there were enough to raise more than a few eyebrows. Let's look at the World Cup hopefuls, position by position.

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Duh. Injuries aside, this group could've been chiseled in stone months ago. No worries here.

DEFENDERS (11): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (N├╝rnberg), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)

More than a few worries here. Center back is about what was expected -- Besler and Gonzalez will start in Brazil, health allowing, with Goodson and Brooks competing for the No. 3 center back spot. Cameron and Parkhurst, while more likely to start at fullback, can play centrally in a pinch.

Johnson looks nailed on to start at left back, even though he's a midfielder by trade, with Beasley as his back-up. Right back is an area of major concern, and not only because there's a certain C. Ronaldo on the horizon. Cameron starts at right back for Stoke and is the most obvious choice to fill that role for the US, while Evans (another central mid playing out of position) can do a job there and Yedlin is an exciting prospect for whom it's probably a World Cup cycle too early.

Chandler is the big question mark. The lack of depth at fullback is the only real justification for his inclusion thus far. This is the same Timmy Chandler who helped stink out the joint in Honduras during World Cup qualifying and was not seen again with the national team for 15 months, partly through injury but also through turning down call-ups. Klinsmann has proclaimed quite publicly how much he values commitment to the cause, yet when the chips are down Chandler can just sashay back into the team because there aren't many obvious options ahead of him? What kind of message does that send? Landon Donovan was exiled for going on his vision quest in Cambodia, and Jozy Altidore was frozen out over perceived poor play, but apparently Chandler playing a thin position is reason enough to make an exception for him and risk team chemistry. A curious decision, to say the least.

MIDFIELDERS (10): Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Maurice Edu (Philadelphia Union), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

As ever, the US is lousy with central midfielders. Bradley is rightly the first name on the team sheet when healthy -- as he goes, so goes the US. Klinsmann has shown great favor toward Jones despite his indiscretions, so it appears Beckerman and Edu are competing to be Jones' back-up, though Cameron is also handy as a defensive midfielder. Ideally, Klinsmann would pick whoever would best help shield the defense and allow Bradley to get forward into the attack, but obviously we don't live in an ideal world.

Zusi has made right midfield his own in the past few years and should continue starting there, with Bedoya his most likely replacement. Then there's the left wing. Davis may have the best left foot in the squad and is excellent on set pieces, but he lacks pace and is more likely to be a situational sub. Johnson and Beasley, while capable of playing on the wing, appear to be locked in at left back.

That leaves Green, the much-hyped phenom who is on the cusp of the World Cup despite his tenure with the national team including one training camp and a friendly against Mexico. Much of the criticism over Chandler's inclusion can apply here, too. While Green is undoubtedly talented, are his potential and performances for Bayern Munich's youth team (which plays in the German fourth division) enough to warrant his inclusion? There have been reports -- all denied -- that Klinsmann promised Green a World Cup roster spot as an enticement for him to play for the US instead of Germany. Even if that's not true, parachuting in a teenager who's had only fleeting glimpses of first-team action is questionable at best. Asking Green to play a major role at the World Cup at this stage of his career is foolhardy, and bringing him along just for the experience is a waste of a roster spot. This all smacks of 1998 and David Regis all over again.

FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Not too many complaints here. Altidore, for all his struggles at Sunderland, is almost ideally suited to fill the role of the lone striker in Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1 and almost a lock to start. Dempsey and Donovan are best deployed behind the lead striker, though Donovan is also handy as a wide midfielder, while Johannsson and Boyd are most likely impact subs. Wondolowski appears to be the latest incarnation of Jason Kreis -- a proven goal-scorer at the MLS level who can't quite fully translate that form onto the international stage. He does well against Concacaf-level competition but has yet to really make an impact against World Cup-caliber opponents. His poaching abilities and off-the-ball movement are formidable, though, so it would not be a complete shock to see him make the cut for Brazil.

Most prominent among the snubs is Eddie Johnson, who has scored some crucial goals for the US and offers a unique blend of speed, aerial prowess and the ability to play on the left wing. Unfortunately, his MLS form dipped mightily after moving to DC United, putting his national team place in doubt. In an odd coincidence, his exclusion makes it three cycles in a row where the player who scored the goal that sent the US to the World Cup did not play in that World Cup. Another notable absence is Juan Agudelo, who finally earned his long hoped-for move to Europe but failed to make it past the fringes of Klinsmann's radar.

Other exclusions of note: Tim Ream, Bolton's player of the year who can operate as a center back, left back or central midfielder; Sacha Kljestan, Benny Feilhaber and Danny Williams, who have the misfortune of playing in one of the few areas where the US doesn't lack depth; and Brek Shea, who has struggled to find playing time since moving to England but is a proven game-changer off the bench for the national team.

The US will play Azerbaijan, Turkey (after which the final 23 will be announced) and Nigeria on home soil before traveling to Brazil. This World Cup is best approached like all the others -- cautious optimism tinged with a sincere sense of dread -- but the combination of a very difficult group and the lingering questions surrounding the US defense make for more trepidation than usual. Here's hoping it's all just paranoia.

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