By Ridge Mahoney
Selecting a roster for qualifying play often demands “either-or” decisions, yet the choices made by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann also fall under the “What’s he thinking?” category.
Mind you, for all his pronouncements about the picks, Klinsmann is not locked into anything. Players can be added or dropped at any time, and since he’s well-known for very public motivational ploys, the selection of, say, Brek Shea and the exclusion of Landon Donovan could be simply, a) a confidence boost for Shea as well as a chance to evaluate his recovery from foot surgery, and b) a kick in the pants to the U.S. all-time goalscoring leader who’s about six weeks back from his unprecedented walkabout.
He’s cast his net wide enough to snag all available players based in Germany and Mexico; with so many potentially important players gathered for an extended period, Klinsmann’s ability to manage his players and generate results undergoes its stiffest test. There’s a smorgasbord of games on tap: friendlies against Belgium and Germany, Hexagonal hoedowns with Jamaica away and Panama and Honduras at home, and then the Gold Cup starting in early July.
At what phase is the U.S. makeover under Klinsmann can’t be gleaned from this roster. That determination is about a month away, once the sixth Hexagonal match, a return date with Honduras, is played June 18 in Sandy, Utah. By then there should be a defined pecking order at each position, as well as a firmer idea of which combinations of players Klinsmann believes packs the most punch.
He seems set on pairing up Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones as midfield fulcrums, but he can opt --2014 in the absence of Steve Cherundolo -- to take different directions at right back. The same can be said at left back, where DaMarcus Beasley’s revival in the last two qualifiers has added another variable to that vexing position.
Though the inclusion of Omar Gonzalez at centerback seems a foregone conclusion, he’s headed for severe scrutiny by a varied set of opponents. Several players are in the hunt to emerge as his regular partner, and how tightly a net the center backs and central mids can throw over the opposing attackers will determine how many points the Americans can extract from the three qualifiers.
While fans and journalists often evaluate the choices at each position by straightforward ranking, coaches see a broader view. They search for the best interlocking combinations as well as the most capable individual, and their view extends far beyond who to pair at centerback or up top.
In the second and third Hexagonal matches, though neither produced much attacking impetus, sets of three and four players showed the cohesion and common thought for Klinsmann to build upon. In the next three games, there simply has to be longer and crisper periods of possession, along with solid, resilient intervals of tracking and tackling when the other team has the ball. A team’s identity is not solely a product of doctrine and drills; there’s far too much randomness for blue-printed plans to forecast. The persona of a team stems from how well and how adroitly the collective on the field can figure things out.
There are still players who seem disconnected from their teammates much of the time. The most notable example: Jozy Altidore, USA Enigma.
The onus, in the absence of Donovan, could fall again on Clint Dempsey, who after a long, tough Premier League season can’t be in top gear for every minute. The door is wide open for someone to step through and take some of the burden off him, and stake a strong claim to fill that role next summer in Brazil.
There’s only a year and a month to go.