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Perceptions change with each U.S. game
by Ridge Mahoney, February 3rd, 2014 9:11PM
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TAGS:  americans abroad, men's national team, mls, world cup 2014


By Ridge Mahoney

The next U.S. friendly is a month away, and when the Americans take on Ukraine in Kharkiv the landscape of their roster could change significantly.

Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said he’ll use European-based players, the ranks of which have shrunk significantly in the past month. Michael Bradley, Michael Parkhurst and Maurice Edu have returned to MLS from stints abroad, joining Clint Dempsey and Clarence Goodson, who made their moves last summer.

If indeed Klinsmann does not select them, along with regulars Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Kyle Beckerman, and of course Landon Donovan, along with the players toiling in Mexico, the cupboard of candidates looks rather bare.

Yet with Timmy Chandler playing regularly for a revived Nuremberg, Aron Johansson slamming in goals for AZ Alkmaar, Jozy Altidore generating good reviews for his play at Sunderland, Alejandro Bedoya a fixture at Nantes and Geoff Cameron turning out regularly for Stoke City, the competition for spots is hardly confined to the expanded domestic base.

Jermaine Jones has found a new beginning in Turkey and Fabian Johnson’s broken hand shouldn’t set him back to any worrisome degree. Other European-based players -- Sacha Kljestan, Oguchi Onyewu, John Brooks, Danny Williams, Tim ReamEric Lichaj and Terrence Boyd -- are all anxious to show Klinsmann what they are capable of. Even if Mix Diskerud is the only holdover from the South Korea game -- Rosenborg will be in the middle of preseason -- Klinsmann won’t be short of choices.

It’s easy to draw too many conclusions from the 2-0 victory Saturday at StubHub Center. Yes, the team had been training for nearly a month, but none of the defenders had played a competitive match since early December. Parkhurst -- who played the full 90 at left back, as Klinsmann had hinted in his last pre-game press conference -- hadn’t been on the field with former club FC Augsburg in nearly a year, though for the USA in 2013 he started five of six Gold Cup games and came on as a sub against Bosnia-Herzegovina last August.

Reviews of Diskerud’s performance were mixed. He didn’t provide a lot of attacking impetus, and was thus downgraded in some reports. Yet playing alongside three outright catalysts -- Donovan, Zusi and Brad Davis -- his role was more of a grafter, to funnel the ball out of the back to teammates in good spots. He’s an intelligent player and without saying it straight-out, that is what Klinsmann wants. Exceptions will be made for those with incredible physical tools, such as Eddie Johnson, but soccer savvy is high on Klinsmann's list.

As he has done many times since taking the helm, Klinsmann deployed his players to test them. Centerbacks Gonzalez and Besler were encouraged, or forced, to look upfield often as outside backs Evans and Parkhurst drifted all the way out to the touchline and a few yards upfield. This opened up space but also left Gonzalez and Besler somewhat isolated, and thus a target for South Korea’s eagerly pressing players.

Donovan and Zusi not only interchanged sides, which is nothing new, they also looked inside to link up with each other as well as Wondolowski and the central mids. Wondo misfired on a few combinations with Donovan but the instincts and cleverness shown in those sequences belied the belief that Wondo is strictly a goalscorer. He is certainly that, and there’s still major questions about coping at the top level, but his soccer brain is more advanced than that of several teammates for which is competing for a spot.

Let’s face it, at least a few of those pundits who wrote off Wondo at the end of 2013 have him back in the mix based on the first game of 2014. How much he’s moved up, if at all, in Klinsmann’s mind is impossible to pin down, but being praised by the coach as “hungry” confirms the work ethic and drive displayed by Wondo despite severe adversity shows that Klinsmann is convinced that Wondo wants it badly.

The two sides of Evans cropped up inside of a minute. After hitting a dangerous cross from near the byline on an overlap about a dozen minutes into the match, he scrambled futilely in pursuit of Kim Min-Woo, who had zipped past him to serve a threatening ball cross the goalmouth. Ten minutes before halftime, Kim Min-Woo did it again, and only a saving block from Besler denied towering South Korean striker Kim Shin-Wook.

Assistant coach Andreas Herzog and scout Matthias Hamann will spend much of the next month scouting the European contingent. Bedoya plays for Nantes Tuesday in a French League Cup game against PSG. He’s scored three goals in 19 Ligue 1 games so far this season and netted in his only cup appearance. If Zusi threw down the challenge flag, as it were, by setting up both goals against South Korea, Bedoya has made a pretty good case himself.

Many others can strengthen their claims against Ukraine, after which everybody’s projected 23 will change yet again.

In a World Cup year, there’s no other way.

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