[USA CONFIDENTIAL] On the eve of Juergen Klinsmann's naming his first U.S. roster for a game against Mexico next Wednesday, a look at the player pool coming out of the Concacaf Gold Cup shows the range and scope of choices facing the new head coach.
GOALKEEPER. Tim Howard showed in the last World Cup he’s a very solid keeper but apparently not capable of the huge, critical save a la predecessors Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller. That may or may not be good enough for Klinsmann, yet challengers to this spot are few.
Brad Guzan desperately needs to sort out his club situation and get into the nets, otherwise he’ll be passed by. David Yelldell has signed with Bayer Leverkusen but has just one season of Bundesliga experience at age 29.
The younger members of the domestic corps – Sean Johnson, Tally Hall, Dan Kennedy, Josh Saunders – are virtually bereft of international experience, and for all their exploits in MLS, Nick Rimando and Will Hesmer and Jon Busch aren’t likely to zoom up the depth chart. Marcus Hahnemann will be 40 next June.
The early September double-dip against Costa Rica (at Home Depot Center) and Belgium (in Brussels) gives Klinsmann the option of fielding two disparate squads, and how many goalies he auditions in his first few games is an intriguing subplot to the start of his tenure.
DEFENDERS. Sure, everybody loves Tim Ream on the ball, but in the tackle and on the mark he suffered in the Gold Cup. Many are those who think Omar Gonzalez is just about ready to start for the USA, and until he gets a chance to be embarrassed that illusion will continue. Both of these guys need national-team games and further growth to emerge as bona fide candidates, which should occur in the next year and a half.
Injury ruled Jay DeMerit out of the Gold Cup and at his age (32 in December) he can’t be projected as a starter in 2014, but his spirit and enthusiasm could be valuable assets for a team in transition. He’s played little for the Whitecaps, however. With nearly a year to go before qualifiers commence, Klinsmann has ample time to measure the progress of Gonzalez, Ream and other pending replacements as he monitors the declines of Carlos Bocanegra, Oguchi Onyewu, and Steve Cherundolo. At age 29, Clarence Goodson is on the bubble and gives Klinsmann a buffer player with size (6-foot-4) between the older veterans and younger guard.
The failure of the U.S. U-20s to qualify for the world championships cost some promising defenders (Ethan White, Greg Garza, Gale Agbossoumonde, Zarek Valentin, Perry Kitchen) valuable international experience against an array of impressive attacking talent. Thus Klinsmann must rely on club performances as he sifts through the possibilities, of which there are many.
Outside backs Eric Lichaj and Tim Chandler are probable bookends of the defense at some point, and securing both corners – rather than just on the right side with Cherundolo – would certainly make Klinsmann’s back-line renovation job easier. There’s also a half-dozen or so MLS hopefuls in the middle and out wide to evaluate, along with the Man Without A Position, Jonathan Spector, who will play in the League Championship (English second division) with Birmingham this season.
When he took over the German national team in 2004, Klinsmann vowed to implement a more attacking approach, yet he also demanded a stronger, fitter, faster fleet of players. Much emphasis has been placed on his using right-footed Philipp Lahm at left back; perhaps he also noted Lahm’s speed, toughness, and knack for scoring spectacular goals and delivering incisive crosses.
No doubt Klinsmann the coach wants more skill and smarts at each position, yet he also acknowledges that much of his own success as a player stemmed from explosiveness, work rate, and spirit. He’s not likely to sacrifice too much tenacity for technique.
MIDFIELDERS. How much emphasis Klinsmann puts on the physical aspects of his team along with the technical elements is most important in midfield. The U.S. has plenty of rugged lads and some flair players but is a bit short on potent blends of both characteristics.
Did Sacha Kljestan and Freddy Adu show enough grit along with guile in the Gold Cup to restore their national team prospects? Is there someone amongst Stuart Holden, Benny Feilhaber, Jose Francisco Torres, Alejandro Bedoya, Mixx Diskerud, et al, who is best suited to playing as a true No. 10? Do Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey stay on the wings, move inside, or go up top? Can there be developed a solid, left-sided mid out of Brek Shea, Robbie Rogers, or Bedoya? Is a recall of DaMarcus Beasley – speedy, aggressive, experienced -- in the cards? Until Cherundolo fades out of the picture, does Chandler learn the ropes at right mid?
Klinsmann has no shortage of candidates to play centrally in a more defensive role, so tinkering with Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Maurice Edu in different combinations and formations is to be expected. If Ricardo Clark gets regular club playing time he could stick around. Chandler might get a look here as well.
FORWARDS. The status of Charlie Davies is of paramount importance, and at this juncture he’s yet to consistently attain the levels of pace and threat he displayed prior to being severely injured in October 2009. More data will be available if he gets some time in the next three friendlies and though his value to the team is unquestioned, he’s still on the way back.
A couple of rough games for Chris Wondolowski at the Gold Cup may have doomed his national team future, but on the other hand, he’s something like German striker Miroslav Klose in style if not accomplishment; a clever, crafty player who can peel away from defenders or glide past them to get a crack at goal. He has the right instincts and still has to prove he’s got enough game.
For all the abuse he’s taken from the Jozy Altidore Hate Club, the 22-year-old should blossom under the tutelage of Klinsmann, who knows all about fusing the physical and psychological demands imposed on forwards. The younger brigade that includes Omar Salgado and Juan Agudelo will relish every minute they spend with Klinsmann, who can talk about all aspects of the game for hours but truly lights up when the topic is goals, the creation and finishing thereof. They will be inspired, and pushed, by a man who scored 227 club goals and 47 more for Germany.
Of the many players laboring in Mexico and Europe, several are forwards. A return for Herculez Gomez, a callup for Joe Benny Corona, and a debut for Conor Doyle are all possibilities, as is a move for Freddy Adu to the front line.
That the player list is large can’t be discounted yet it’s also more of a pond than a lake. Progress depends on whether Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer can dredge it deeper as it expands.