The roster decisions made by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for the first camp of 2016 are a hodgepodge of the highest order.
Seven veterans on the initial list of 36 players are not in the 23-man squad, a bizarre sidelight for a coach who can’t seem to accept his own admission that this will be transitional year for the national team. The number 23 is also relevant for nearly one-half of the players, those who are age-eligible to represent the U.S. this summer at the Olympic Games. But the coach isn't quite ready to go gung-ho with the new faces, even for two low-key friendlies.
The omission of the two Gonzalezes, Omar and Jesse, from the January training camp tells two different yet parallel stories about where the U.S. national team might be headed.
Omar Gonzalez recently left MLS and the Galaxy after seven seasons to sign with Mexican club Pachuca, and good luck to Klinsmann if he tries to pry away the centerback for friendlies against Iceland (Jan. 29) and Canada (Feb. 5). The Mexican team is under no obligation to release him, as the games do not fall within the FIFA dates, and if he is called and released it would mean he’s not done enough to earn meaningful playing time for a busy schedule that starts this weekend with the Liga MX openers. There’s not a lot of experience in the backline named by Klinsmann as of the five defenders selected only Matt Besler has several years under his belt as an MLS and USA regular.
There’s also very little national team experience in goal, though Bill Hamid of D.C. United has been named to many squads during the past few years and started for the U.S. U-23s during the ill-fated qualifying campaign for the 2012 Games. He has just two caps for the senior team and his counterpart on the roster, Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles, played his only U.S. game in 2009.
Klinsmann’s plan to call up Jesse Gonzalez, who has played only 15 regular-season and playoff games for FCD at the professional level, ran aground when the 20-year-old keeper decided to stay with Mexico, for which he has played at the U-20 level. Unlike the USA, which in March must defeat Colombia to qualify for the Olympics, Mexico is readying its U-23 team for a visit to Rio this summer.
The U-23 pool already has Cody Cropper, Zach Steffen, and Ethan Horvath, who has nailed down a starting slot for Norwegian club Molde. If the USA does qualify for the Olympics, a veteran keeper could be named as one of the three permitted over-age players. Gonzalez can still petition FIFA for a one-time switch of nationality, which would be required since he played for Mexico in an official competition.If qualification for the Olympics is indeed of vital importance, as Klinsmann has stated repeatedly, and you have 11 serious candidates in camp, why isn’t that the primary focus of these games? Grooming players for the senior team is of utmost importance, and of great necessity whether the USA plays in the Olympics or not.
The idea of consigning veteran players to standby status is also rather bizarre. No matter the opposition, they aren’t likely to be fit enough to play well against international opposition. They would have at the most a week of preseason training with their MLS clubs to draw upon if they were summoned for the 2016 opener against Iceland Jan. 29, and a few more days at best prior to a game Feb. 5 against Canada.
One of the major squawks about last year’s January camp arose when Klinsmann criticized the fitness levels of several players for the first two games of the year against Chile and Panama. Besler took exception, stating his target date was the early March opening of the MLS season and not a late-January friendly. A firestorm of debate ensued that left Klinsmann as well as Besler and several other players skewered by certain segments of the soccer community.
Besler is one of the few U.S. veterans named to the 23-man squad. The selection of Jermaine Jones, who is out of contract and at 34 is scarcely a subject for identification and development, raises the question: what exactly does Klinsmann want out of these games? Isn't it better for Matt Miazga to labor in camp knowing the coach won't bail him and his young teammates out by calling a veteran in case they struggle? Hasn't Gyasi Zardes done enough to get a couple of possible shots without the specter of Clint Dempsey hovering in the background? Or is all that stuff about the Seven Standbys pure fluff without substance, yet another of Klinsmann's psychological ploys?
We won’t know until the games have been played, and have seen which players he uses from the 23 and which he summons on short notice. Picking a hybrid squad meshes philosophically with a need for solid performances regardless of personnel or circumstance, and seeing which of the 10 uncapped players makes their U.S. debuts will certainly be intriguing.
The omission of Omar Gonzalez won’t be an issue if he secures a regular spot for Pachuca and regains a regular slot in the U.S. back line. Unless he has a change of heart, Jesse Gonzalez will be a minor footnote and nothing more.
But the tales of the two Gonzalezes remind us once again of the quirky behavior that has repeatedly punctuated the era of Klinsmann, tasked with reshaping the game in the U.S. and only marginally impactful so far.