More players from Germany and Mexico are narrowing the available slots for MLS players as CoachJurgen Klinsmann balances his long-term goals with the immediate task of advancing to the Hexagonal.
The last time American fans had to cram their way into a soccer-friendly pub or cough up pay-per-view money to watch a USA Concacaf World Cup qualifier, their team pulled off a stunning 3-2 victory in Honduras that clinched a spot in the 2010 World Cup.
Nothing so dramatic can occur Tuesday in Guatemala City when the USA plays the second of six matches in the semifinal round, yet fans will have to endure similar situations and ponder a possible recurrence in the Hexagonal, the final round of qualifying. It’s a hassle and a pain but serves as a harsh reminder of where the sport currently stands, which is in a grey area where there’s more soccer on network and cable than ever before but still isn’t prestigious enough that a network can justify an outlandish outlay.
More relevant is where the team stands nine months after Klinsmann took over, with the answer being, “it’s too soon to tell.” A depressing defeat, a crushing win, or a nervous and fiercely fought tie would all affect the standings differently without really altering the big picture. “Long-term” is a wonderfully imprecise adjective, and since most of Klinsmann’s objectives fall into this category, his second competitive match has great short-term importance and not much else.
Failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup would be disastrous, and yet if the USA does qualify, not until then can Klinsmann truly be assessed. By then he’ll have had nearly three years to select and prepare his players, to stamp his influence on the game in America, and coach a team in the World Cup.
In accomplishments, he has rather high benchmarks to match; the USA won the Hexagonal and also finished first in its group at the 2010 World Cup, and with a squad aging rapidly in a few critical areas, as he guides the USA through qualifying Klinsmann must also nuture the next generation to more closely resemble the fluid, skillful team he envisions. In addition to dipping deeper into the available players honed in Mexico, he’s gone back to his German roots.
He’s appeared to address both issues by ramping up the use of American-eligible players raised and developed in Germany, though one of them, Tim Chandler, has taken himself out of the picture. He can still play for Germany, since he’s only played in friendlies for the USA, yet there’s also the possibility he’s quit the team because of Klinsmann, who dispatched him at left back.
If that’s the case, one could question the depth of his loyalty to the USA, for which he was a certainty to play regularly if his performances held up. So either he’s been informed privately he’ll be called in by Germany once a new cycle starts following the European Championship, or he’s so petulant about playing for Klinsmann and the USA he’d rather not play at all. As for now he’s out.
Fortunately, the others – Fabian Johnson, Terrence Boyd and Danny Williams – have jumped right into the team, and while some fans may pine for a greater MLS contingent on the national team, the stone-cold fact is that these players are so far ahead of comparable domestic players it ain’t even funny. Getting them up to speed at the international level has already paid off, particularly in the case of Johnson, but it will be in the next 24 months their value truly emerges.
MLS teams have achieved greater success against Concacaf foes in this region’s version of the Champions League, but not many of those players have found their way into Klinsmann’s plans. Kyle Beckerman is on the current squad but is well down the depth chart; Brek Shea got a long look yet was passed over for this go-round; and not until late this year or early in 2013 will we know what the prospects are for Omar Gonzalez – here we go again – long-term.
Unfortunately, injuries to Johnson and Williams will delay their education in the ways of Concacaf, where frenzy and misfortune can subsume tactics and acumen. No doubt these are tough, smart players, and they won’t need more than a short stint south of the border to grasp the task. A key figure in the Tuesday game will be Steve Cherundolo, a veteran of more than a decade of Bundesliga play and many trips to hostile Concacaf venues. He might even play left back.
The gap for them, as opposed to most MLS players, isn’t nearly as large, and with three away games in the semifinal round to be followed by, presumably, five more in the Hexagonal, the coach will be looking outside MLS to stock his roster.
Every player Klinsmann used in Friday's World Cup qualifying opener, a 3-1 win over Antigua & Barbuda, played abroad last season. The only current MLS player fielded, Landon Donovan, played last winter at Everton on loan from the Galaxy.
The American league can benefit in other ways from Klinsmann’s hiring, though it will likely take longer than two years.