By Ridge Mahoney
If Tim Chandler plays against Honduras on Wednesday, the first of 10 Hexagonal games, he will be the latest player sired by an American and raised in Germany to be bound to the U.S. team. And he will almost immediately take on a vital role as the Americans embark on qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
It's not simply that Chandler plays outside back, where aside from veteran Steve Cherundolo, the U.S. team has used stopgap measures for much of the past decade. The much-maligned Jonathan Bornstein stepped up his game at the 2010 World Cup, but since leaving Chivas USA to test his luck in Mexico has disappeared from the national team.
Like Cherundolo, Chandler plays regularly in the German Bundesliga, where Coach Jurgen Klinsmann started his illustrious career before adding to his fame in Italy and England. The emergence of another Bundesliga regular, Fabian Johnson, has eased the pressure on Klinsmann to fill that spot, and like Johnson, Chandler can play either corner, and so can yet another Bundesliga-based player, Michael Parkhurst.
Yet not many players appear in nine friendlies before playing in a competitive match, and Chandler’s avoidance of playing in a game that would tie him to the USA prompted rumors and speculation. Was he under pressure from his club, Nuremberg, as former U.S. international Tony Sanneh suggested? Did he hold out hope he’d be summoned by the German national team? Was he just a flake, or too lazy to rack up the thousands of air miles and annoying jet lag that plagues Concacaf players required to cross the Atlantic Ocean?
One facet of coaching the USA that Klinsmann has needed some time to comprehend is the arduous distances often traveled by U.S. players based in Europe to play in their Concacaf qualifiers. When first called into the national team by predecessor Bob Bradley, Chandler balked at flying to the U.S. to play in the 2011 Gold Cup, citing fatigue after a long European season. Subsequent efforts by Klinsmann to field him in Concacaf games were rebuffed, and his decision not to play in the semifinal qualifying round last year left some fans and journalists exasperated.
Yet while Klinsmann said last summer the U.S. program had “moved on,” he didn’t slam the door on Chandler. Only a coach overstocked with national team players could afford to take such an extreme stance, and Klinsmann doesn’t enjoy that luxury. Managing personalities is just as important as preaching tactics and providing motivation, and Klinsmann knew drawing a line in the sand would accomplish nothing with a young player – Chandler turns 23 on March 30 -- still finding his feet in the professional game.
Klinsmann didn’t hesitate to call in striker Terrence Boyd, 20, last year before he’d played a first-team Bundesliga match, and while that decision flustered some observers wondering about veterans of MLS and other leagues who were passed over, Boyd has since moved onto Rapid Vienna and is scoring regularly. That’s a step down in leagues, but a jump up into the first team. He wasn’t called in for the Honduras game but is certainly in the pool, the Bundesliga contingent of which continues to grow.
What will bear watching over the next year or so is whether the younger Bundesliga players ascend to bigger clubs in the Bundesliga or elsewhere. International play sharpens their abilities and increases their value, but comes at a cost in fatigue, possibility of injury, and intense pressure. Cherundolo, who turns 34 on Feb. 19, has played more than a decade at Hannover, but he’s an exceptional case.
“It’s a huge opportunity for Timmy and I think he’s simply just maturing,” said Klinsmann pointedly and politely. “He’s growing into his role as a full-time professional and that’s why we were very patient with Timmy to mature.
“It’s a coach’s job to understand where certain players are in their own process and pick them up to help them get to the next level. We are patient with Timmy to get to the next level, and now there is this opportunity of a big World Cup qualifier coming up.”