[USA CONFIDENTIAL]The direction of U.S. Soccer under Jurgen Klinsmann heads into its first competitive action when Olympic men's coach Caleb Porter and his team open Concacaf qualifying play on Thursday. Porter has selected a squad rather similar to the one named by U-23 predecessor Peter Nowak four years ago.
While the tasks undertaken by professional clubs and national soccer federations often vary widely, developing young players while getting results is common to both.
In the process of grooming players for the national team, thanks to an uneasy arrangement between FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, the last frontier on the men’s side is the U-23 team. Though FIFA organizes and conducts the Olympic soccer competitions, because of age restrictions for men its matches are not regarded as a ‘A’ internationals and thus are not counted as full international caps.
For the 2012 Olympic Games, players born on or after Jan. 1, 1989 are age-eligible, which means they can compete in the qualifying tournament as well as the Olympics. Three over-age players are permitted at the Olympic Games but not for the qualifying tournament, which for the U.S. men begins Thursday against Cuba in Nashville, Tenn.
(Because the Women’s World Cup and Olympic soccer tournaments are unhindered by age restrictions, they are essentially similar competitions classified by FIFA as ‘A’ internationals.)
Head coach Caleb Porter selected 14 players from Major League Soccer for his 20-man qualifying roster. Give or take a player or two because of injury or other extenuating circumstances, the percentage is nearly the same as four years ago.
As such, the qualifying competition provides a valid reference point to assessing how well U.S. Soccer and MLS are performing in the nettlesome process of developing players. It has more value than the team selected for the actual Olympic tournament because the decision on which over-age players to pick affects decisions on many of the age-eligible candidates.
Here’s the 20-man roster named by then-coach Peter Nowak for the 2008 Concacaf Olympic qualifiers and in parentheses, the clubs they played for at the time:
G – Dominic Cervi (out of contract), Chris Seitz (Real Salt Lake). D – Hunter Freeman (New York), Kamani Hill* (Wolfsburg), Pat Ianni (Houston), Michael Orozco* (San Luis), Jonathan Spector* (West Ham United), Nathan Sturgis (RSL), Marvell Wynne* (Toronto FC).
MF – Freddy Adu* (Benfica), Maurice Edu* (Toronto FC), Eddie Gaven* (Columbus), Stuart Holden* (Houston), Sacha Kljestan* (Chivas USA), Dax McCarty* (FC Dallas), Sal Zizzo* (Hannover). F –Jozy Altidore* (New York), Chad Barrett* (Chicago), Charlie Davies* (Hammarby), Robbie Findley* (RSL).
Thirteen MLS players were selected for the 2008 team, which would have been the same number for this month’s squad had not Norwegian club Molde recalled Josh Gatt, who was replaced by Union defender Sheanon Williams. He was third Philly player selected, which matches the RSL trio picked in 2008 as the most players from one MLS team.
The timing of the tournament -– the 2008 competition kicked off in late February – surely affects the choice of players, though the cusp of the regular season isn't an ideal time for MLS players. Teams are not compelled to release players for Olympic qualifying competition, nor for the tournament itself. The case of Gatt and Molde is the just the latest example of foreign intrasengience sometimes encountered by U.S. coaches, who more or less receive carte blanche from their MLS counterparts.
The players marked by an asterisk (*) have played for the senior team, with Maurice Edu and Jozy Altidore the prime examples of players establishing themselves as regulars. Charlie Davies reached that status prior to suffering life-threatening injuries in an auto accident, and Robbie Findley got a spot on the 2010 World Cup team largely due to Davies’ absence. Stuart Holden, out of action for the past year because of injuries, had also cemented a spot in the senior pool.
Freddy Adu, Sacha Kljestan and Jonathan Spectorhave been in and out of the national team pool. Adu tried to make it in Europe and failed; Kljestan has established himself as a starter for Belgian club Anderlecht, which is contending for the domestic league title and reached the knockout stages of the Europa League. Spector left West Ham United last summer after six seasons bouncing on and off the first team; he’s been a regular for Birmingham City in the League Championship (second division) and has played three games for Klinsmann.
From the 2008 team, five players have gone overseas from their MLS teams: Edu, Holden, Kljestan, Altidore and Findley. Two others have left Europe for MLS: Zizzo and Adu.
Though a handful of the 2008 players received only one or two U.S. caps in friendlies, most of them are regulars for club teams either in MLS or overseas. The rosters of most national teams include a few players who first represented their country at the senior level, which shows the importance of getting as many players as possible established with club teams. As former youth internationals fade out of the picture, first-team regulars replace them.
Porter and Klinsmann have worked together closely to scout players and implement convergent philosophies with a few dramatic results. The most vivid example is forward Terrence Boyd, a reserve player for Borussia Dortmund who so impressed the coaching staff that Klinsmann brought him onto the senior team for the friendly against Italy last month and sent him on as a substitute.
Boyd is one of several German-based players brought into the U.S. pool in the wake of Schalke 04 midfielder Jermaine Jones debuting for the U.S. in 2010 after switching his allegiance from Germany, which he had represented at the U-21 level. Boyd and U.S. product Joseph Gyau (Hoffenheim) are the two German Bundesliga players named by Porter to his U-23 team. Gyau, 19, is a graduate of the U.S. Soccer U-17 residency camp who, like Boyd, is getting regular time for the reserves.
In 2008, Nowak – a former Polish international who came to MLS from German club 1860 Munich – selected two Bundesliga players, Hill and Zizzo. Neither has flourished at the club level and both have dropped out of the U.S. pool.
Klinsmann’s predecessor Bob Bradley, as coach of the expansion Chicago Fire, brought Nowak to MLS in 1998 and together they won an MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double. Six years later, Nowak began his head coaching career with D.C. United and won the league title in his first season in charge. They, too, worked in tandem, yet Klinsmann has been much more public with his ideas regarding vertical integration of teams, systems of play, and philosophies.
Unlike Nowak, Porter has no MLS coaching experience, yet his success in building the University of Akron into one of the country’s top collegiate programs confirms his ability to recognize talented players and mesh them into a team that can get results. The next cycle of honing players for the national team starts Thursday against Cuba; the dynamics are different, yet the objectives are much the same.