[USA-SOUTH KOREA] The U.S. national team has been working on a few nuances in preparation for its opening game of 2014 against South Korea Saturday at StubHub Center (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2, UniMas).
A heavy emphasis on conditioning has been imposed on the team, of course, though head coach Jurgen Klinsmannhas praised the players for coming into camp relatively fit. Yet he’s also taken advantage of a long interval -- which aside from a pair of closed-door scrimmages in Brazil has consisted solely of training sessions -- to build upon the concepts and philosophies that have been preached since he took control in the summer of 2011.
He won’t have that luxury again. Though the final preparation phase will start more than a month before the first World Cup game, that period will broken up by three domestic friendlies, a match or perhaps two in Brazil, and fairly extensive travel. And so the teaching continues.
Precisely what those tweaks and nuances might be, he’s not saying, not just yet. “Tactically we were working on a couple of things this week, sharpening that up,” he told ussoccer.com on Tuesday. “We’ll let you know about that stuff right after the game whether we did it or not.”
Fans and pundits will make all manner of projections and predictions based on what they see against South Korea; Klinsmann is more concerned with the here-and-now, since few of these players will be on hand for the next friendly on March 5 in Ukraine. If he sticks to his plan of naming the final squad of 23 in early May, a proposed match against Mexico in April will be the last-chance saloon.
One of the players with no doubt, barring injury, of his inclusion in the squad is impressed by what’s going on around him.
“In my opinion,” said Landon Donovan on the federation’s Web site, “there’s never been competition for places on the team like there is now. You can really make a case for 35 to 40 guys to be part of a 23-man roster. That’s never been the case. There’s been like 18, 19, 20 that are assured of being there and then a few extra spots. Now, it’s really up for grabs in a lot of positions. That in itself breeds competition, which obviously makes the team better.”
The South Koreans suffered a 4-0 thumping by Mexico in San Antonia Wednesday and the StubHub meeting will be the final game of a three-match tour. They started last Saturday by beating Costa Rica, 1-0, at the Los Angeles Coliseum, and should be relatively sharp with those two games under their feet, which is just what Klinsmann wants. They, too, are getting ready for the World Cup.
He hasn’t been drilling his players for three and a half weeks expecting a lethargic, sluggish opponent. The game is sold out, so the visitors may play cautiously at the start, yet they are likely to have a sizable, frenzied segment of fans on hand drawn from the significant South Korean population in the area. If there are indeed six or eight World Cup spots to be claimed, Klinsmann wants those fringe players tested. They were pushed hard before and after the stay in Brazil, which also entailed demanding work.
“It’s a game at the end of January camp where you want to see the players implement the thing we worked on in these three and a half weeks,” says Klinsmann. “You want to see progress they made throughout the camp to get an idea of where they are individually.”
He’s also observing closely dynamics within the group, and how players respond to a long grind of sessions.
“It helps to finish [the camp] off with a game or maybe two, because it’s something they are looking forward to. Otherwise, they train, train, train, but can’t prove it in a game.”
At least five players won’t get the opportunity against South Korea, since a team can use no more than 17 in a friendly. Five players from the original 26-man squad were released after the team returned from Brazil, and the addition of defender Michael Parkhurst once his move from German club FC Augsburg to Columbus became official leaves 22 candidates to play Saturday.
Thus, there’s about as much pressure, internally as well as externally, as possible for a friendly to be played more than five months before the World Cup opener. The performance might lack polish, but not passion.
“The couple of months before the World Cup, everybody wants to set a tone, not only for themselves individually but as an entire group you want to get positive results whenever you can because that always helps the atmosphere of the national team,” says Klinsmann. “At the same time, we know it’s only part of preparation for the World Cup, but when a game like Saturday’s comes along and then Ukraine in March, it gives you something to focus on and give the players the opportunity to prove where they are right now, as of today.”
GOALKEEPERS (3) :Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
DEFENDERS (7) :Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Michael Harrington (Portland Timbers), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC).
MIDFIELDERS (8) :Eric Alexander (New York Red Bulls), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).
FORWARDS (4): Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Eddie Johnson (D.C. United), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes).