By Ridge Mahoney
For decades, American soccer fans have dreamed of a well-stocked men's national team, from which the coach could pick from dozens of player capable of performing at the international level.
That goal has yet to be attained in the USA, and there several levels of international play that escalate to the World Cup summit.
Brazil, of course, teems with talented players. Argentina, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, even England have large casts of supporting players to bolster the stars. Honed by years of experience in tough leagues, those players prompt national-team coaches to ask themselves, “Who best fits my system?’ rather than, “Is this the best we can do?”
The USA isn’t close to joining those nations in the top tier. But signs are clear that conditions for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann are trending in the right direction. When he names his World Cup roster next year, his hard choices will be encountered trimming it down to 23, not padding it with marginal candidates because there’s nobody else.
At the Concacaf/Gold Cup level at least, banging out nine straight wins in competitive matches -- three Hexagonal qualifiers, six Gold Cup games -- proves there are more viable candidates than ever before. The Gold Cup ‘B’ squad did have the ultimate A-lister, Landon Donovan, to lead the way, and stomping Belize, Cuba and El Salvador by combined scores of 15-3 isn’t going to rattle any of the teams the U.S. might face in a World Cup.
But along with those cakewalks the Americans grinded out 1-0 defeats of Costa Rica (in the Group C finale) and Panama (in the final), and also toppled Honduras, 3-1, in the semifinal. Klinsmann picked very few holdovers from the squad that downed Jamaica (2-1), Panama (2-0), and Honduras (1-0) to take over first place in the Hexagonal standings, yet the Gold Cup Gang powered forward to win seven straight matches, starting with a 6-0 warmup rout of Guatemala shortly after it was assembled.
Nearly a dozen players raised their stock and Klinsmann’s management of the squads as well as the games themselves polished his profile as well. Last year’s reclamation project, Eddie Johnson, came off the bench to score with his first touch against Honduras; Brek Shea’s goals broke open 0-0 games.
Weak competition can be rightly cited in a few cases, yet the claim can also be made a strong, confident U.S. team outclassed and outworked its opponents much of the time. It’s also clear that Gold Cup participants will push at least a few Hexagonal regulars for playing time.
This expansion of the player pool doesn’t mean every player to wear the U.S. jersey since Klinsmann took over nearly two years ago can step right into a World Cup group game against Spain. But it does mean there are numerous options to Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley in central midfield, for example, though a torn ACL has again derailed the career of Stuart Holden. Kyle Beckerman turned in a consistent run of performances much like his regular outings for Real Salt Lake, and the Norway-based Mix Diskerud confirmed that the promise he’d shown previously is real.
How much credit can Klinsmann take for this upsurge in talent? In one sense, not much. Players hone their craft with their club teams, and it’s up to the national team coach to sort through the options and select those who he believes can enhance each other’s abilities while melding into a cohesive, consistent unit.
Yet Klinsmann has transformed the collective mentality, from a perceived old-boy network to a brand new frontier. Players are called for national team camps to test their readiness, not gauge their potential or reward their past performances. Nor does a bad outing dump one to the far side of the bench, as Shea and Chris Wondolowski have learned.
Shea’s play during the Gold Cup included two quick goals off the bench that highlighted strong showings as well as a couple of clunkers. Wondolowski’s recall after being blanked in his first nine U.S. games raised some eyebrows; he scored six goals in three straight matches before cooling off in the Gold Cup knockout rounds.
When informed in January, 2012, he was the only player called in by Klinsmann for each of the coach’s first nine games in charge, Shea said, “I didn’t know that had happened. It’s actually kind of cool. Obviously that gives me confidence that chose me and keeps playing me. A big part of soccer is confidence and he definitely has encouraged me to play a very attacking style. He’s been very helpful to me; he’s been very helpful to everyone, actually.”
Since then, Shea struggled through a rough 2012 MLS season, transferred from FC Dallas to Stoke City, spent long, hard months rehabbing a nagging foot injury, and played his way to at least the fringe of contention for a national team spot. He’s been convinced since early in Klinsmann’s tenure that players are not extended token callups, as a few players believed to be the case in past regimes.
“Jurgen has given everyone a chance, calling in all these guys to all these camps,” says Shea. “He gives guys the chance they need.”
He’s also not wedded to the past for whatever reason. The most extreme example is Donovan, excluded by Klinsmann from the Hexagonal games and given the opportunity to impress in the Gold Cup. By scything through opponents to ring up five goals, seven assists, and dozens of menacing moments, he did just that. Yet Klinsmann has refused to confirm he’ll be called for the next round of World Cup qualifiers in September, though a “high probability” of his inclusion was mentioned.
“However it happened, Landon was up there on a pedestal, the symbol of MLS as well as the national team,” says former international Eric Wynalda, whose blunt criticisms of MLS, U.S. Soccer, and Donovan are well-documented. “Well, Jurgen showed all the players he doesn’t care about what you’ve done in the past, it’s what you can do in the next game. Now Landon’s off the pedestal and on the podium with everybody else.”
Alejandro Bedoya replaced Joe Corona at right mid in the semifinal against Honduras and assisted on both of Donovan’s goals. Rather than drop Bedoya and re-install Corona for the final against Panama, Klinsmann played them both; Bedoya kept his spot on the right, Corona moved to the left. Bedoya’s inswinging low cross from the right flank was banged into the net at the goal line by Shea, fresh off the bench, for the only goal.
For the first time since 2007, the Americans were Concacaf champions. Among the celebrants was Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who was recalled from the Galaxy in time for the semifinal but played only the last few minutes of the final. Clarence Goodson’s solid play had earned and kept a place in the first XI.
“I would have argued that up ‘til now, 80 percent of our success has been accidental,” says Wynalda. “If you look at this team and the group that has been assembled, when you get into that environment, you believe you have a realistic chance of making the team. No politics, no ‘The coach is going with that guy because he’s been there before.’ Klinsmann has made it clear that everybody here has a chance.”
GOLD CUP BAROMETER
Which players strengthened claims for a spot on the 2014 World Cup squad by their play in the Gold Cup?
Good bets for Brazil: DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Eddie Johnson, Omar Gonzalez.
Up the charts: Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson, Clarence Goodson, Michael Orozco, Michael Parkhurst, Jose Torres, Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona, Landon Donovan.
Holding steady: Brek Shea, Oguchi Onyewu, Herculez Gomez (left early due to injury).
On the bubble, at best: Chris Wondolowski, Edgar Castillo, Tony Beltran.
Did not play: Corey Ashe, Bill Hamid, Alan Gordon, Will Bruin, Jack McInerney.
Injured: Stuart Holden (torn ACL right knee), Josh Gatt (replaced by Shea).