[USA-MEXICO] Along with the players who will face against Mexico next Wednesday with their World Cup spots already booked, how those on the bubble react to the scenario could decide their fates as well.
As big as every game is against its closest and bitterest rival, USA-Mexico isn’t the last-chance saloon. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann will name a 30-man squad to gather in mid-May for games against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria. The deadline to name the final World Cup squad of 23 falls a day after the Turkey game, but still, for some players, Mexico could be the make-or-break showdown.
A spotty showing by a mostly European-based team against Ukraine earlier this month in a 2-0 defeat has ratcheted up the hopes of many players.
“I can guarantee you that the MLS-contingent players were watching that Urkaine game and they were buzzing, because when you watch a game like that, you get a little extra feeling that the door’s open a little bit and it’s the last game, says former U.S. international and ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman “Now technically, it’s not the the last game; Jurgen can wait until Azerbaijan and then after the Turkey game. So technically it’s not the last game, but it’s in the back of your mind when you know the roster date is May 12 or May 14 or whatever it is for the 30 players [editor's note: the date is May 13], it’s the last opportunity.”
Focusing on the job at hand and ignoring everything else is nearly impossible in the best of conditions. Having a Damocles’ sword -- the 30-man roster -- dangling over their heads against a team of players just as anxious to impress their coach is yet another measure of resilience and determination. Shutting out everything is the only way to go, but saying that and doing it are completely different things.
“The closer you get, you’re thinking about it," says Twellman. “It’s human nature. You don’t play as freely, you don’t play as loose. Every player on the field is thinking about his personal performance, so it’s always difficult. It will be very interesting friendly and by the way, the same for Mexico. All of those Liga MX players are thinking the same thing.”
Further clouding the crystal ball is the exclusion of Club Tijuana players who are committed to Concacaf Champions League play a day before the friendly in Arizona.
Here’s a rundown of players on the roster whose game against Mexico is extremely relevant to their World Cup chances:
FORWARDS. Julian Green’s commitment to play for the United States has generated enormous buzz and he’s almost certain to get some minutes against Mexico. Klinsmann’s aggressive lobbying of Green always carried a strong likelihood of success; since he was born in Florida there are no clouds regarding U.S. citizenship, and with Klinsmann’s job assured for the next four years there’s no short-term regime change to deal with.
A more intriguing scenario is whether he is named to the preliminary squad of 30 players that will gather in mid-May to begin final World Cup preparations. Whether or not his chances of going to Brazil are solid or tenuous, he would take a spot from a player who’s been in the squad for a while and is at least in contention for a spot. All the players have bought into Klinsmann’s mantra that each and every camp is a proving ground, yet dropping a regular contributor for a longshot newcomer could ripple the waters a bit.
Of course, there’s also the possibility that the amazingly talented Green, as young and raw as he is, can hang with the regulars and is a more viable candidate than say, Chris Wondolowski, whose MLS prowess belies his hit-and-miss track record for the USA. That’s an unlikely outcome, yet the players know that Klinsmann has revived the hopes of many who felt unfairly snubbed in the past. They respect his opinions.
The exclusion of players from Club Tijuana, which plays a CCL semifinal the day before USA-Mexico, further clouds the chances of forward Herculez Gomez. He, too, is a player who will anxiously sweat out the next six weeks until the squad of 30 is named. He’s lost a bit of that speed that swept him in behind back lines earlier in his career and attempts to play him out wide for the U.S. haven’t worked well.
The joker is Eddie Johnson, who like Gomez has been used out wide as well as up top. Klinsmann can’t approve of the antics by which he triggered a trade from Seattle to D.C. United, but he’s produced for the head coach and brings physical elements many of the U.S. attackers cannot. Green’s addition and the rapid emergence of Aron Johannsson reminds everyone that getting too comfortable is dangerous.
MIDFIELDERS. In this category, the wild card is Maurice Edu, recalled to the national team after an absence of one year. He returned to MLS in January to bolster his chances for Brazil as a central midfielder, where RSL counterpartKyle Beckerman seems to have locked up a spot behind likely startersJermaine Jones and Michael Bradley.
Edu brings the versatility Klinsmann seeks and has played centerback for the USA, yet so has Geoff Cameron. Another solid showing against Mexico (he started in the 1-0 win and 0-0 tie at Azteca over the last two years) buttressed by his 2010 World Cup experience can land Edu at least a spot in the squad of 30 though the numbers game may in the end defeat him. He’s a stronger, more physical player than Beckerman but has lost a lot ground while he struggled for playing time in Europe the past few years.
Brad Davis brings a dynamic left-footed presence the team lacks, aside from DaMarcus Beasley to a lesser extent, and despite some good showings over the past several years he appears to be stuck on the outside edge of the bubble. Luis Gil is being groomed for the future and has shown a lot of grit as well as guile for RSL since its big shakeup 16 months ago. The formation played by RSL demands a rare skill set but he’s been steeped in the team’s possession game for several years and if there’s one thing highly prized by Klinsmann, it’s mastery of the ball. Like Gomez,Joe Corona at Tijuana fell down the depth chart in the second half of 2013 though he has been playing very well for the Xolos in recent weeks.
DEFENDERS. This will be the strongest MLS-stocked position at the World Cup, whether or not utility manBrad Evans -- the de facto right back during much of Klinsmann’s reign -- makes the final 23. Michael Parkhurst’s return to MLS last winter tags his name to Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson and Evans, whose teammateDeAndre Yedlin is on the radar screen at right back and could get some time against Mexico.
The stock of Parkhurst, who can play outside back or in the middle, has risen in the wake of Timmy Chandler’s injury that will sideline him for the rest of the Bundesliga season. Steve Cherundolo’s retirement announcement last week confirmed the inevitable and doesn’t really alter the selection puzzle, though it certainly saddened just about everyone in the U.S. soccer family. Edgar Castillo hasn't dropped out of the picture entirely and is still a good possibility for the squad of 30 depending on his showings for TJ over the next month and a half.
Michael Orozco, Beasley’s teammate at Puebla, has been in and out of favor since Klinsmann took over. He has the foot skills desired by the head coach but has to be ranked fourth or fifth among the centerbacks. He scored the goal as a sub in the 1-0 U.S. victory in Estadio Azteca in 2012, yet a rough outing against Costa Rica in the Hexagonal harmed his World Cup prospects.
GOALKEEPER. The World Cup trio of Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando is set, yet Klinsmann will probably name at least one more goalkeeper to the preliminary squad of 30. Since in the past keepers have shuttled between a national-team camp and their MLS clubs to play matches, he could do that in late May withSean Johnson and Bill Hamid, who are next on the depth chart and have been summoned along with Rimando for the Mexico friendly. Yet to be determined is if keepers who are named to the squad of 30 will be released to play for their MLS teams prior to the announcement of the final 23.