I want to start of this column by saying that I still love the United States Men's National Team. Regardless of the feelings I have about the roster Jurgen Klinsmann has selected for the World Cup in Brazil next month, it does not change the fact that I still want this team to succeed and I will be rooting for everyone wearing the while polo shirts and red and blue firecracker popsicle shirts. Even that guy from Seattle who's not a defender.
Now, do I think this is the best 23-man roster to get the USA out of Group G? No, I don't. But that is still the goal for the USMNT at this point and it should be. It doesn't matter that we've been drawn against Germany, Portugal and Ghana, at this point I expect our national team to get into the knockout stages at every World Cup. The USA has qualified for every World Cup since 1990 and it's time to start seeing ourselves as, at a minimum, a team that gets to the knockout stages every World Cup.
Last week, I probably would have settled for a strong 3rd place in the group, maybe losing out via a tiebreaker or something. If the USMNT had arguably sent their best 23-man roster, played three really good and competitive games and fell just short I would not have been terribly disappointed. But Jurgen Klinsmann did not pick the best 23-players, and as far as I'm concerned he didn't even come close.
And while I think Landon Donovan should be on the roster, I am fully aware that he doesn't have a great starting role in Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. But there is still value in having a player as talented, versatile and clutch as Donovan on the bench. By cutting Donovan as well as veterans like Brad Evans, Clarence Goodson, Michael Parkhurst and Maurice Edu, Klinsmann has eliminated a lot of chemisty and depth from his defensive backline. A backline that has to now go out and stop Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
My opinion on how to build a World Cup roster obviously means nothing. But I do not buy the notion of building for the future by bringing in players like John Brooks, Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin for "experience" at the World Cup. Dan Walsh from The Philly Soccer page isn't a fan either, and while I don't think Klinsmann's giving up on Brazil, it's hard to not think he has at least one eye on Russia in 2018.
Klinsmann has an entire cycle to prepare these players for the international level. Sitting on a bench and practicing against the starts doesn't help them as far as I'm concerned and they should probably still be with their club teams. Green is perhaps the only one who I could have seen beating out someone like Brad Davis for a bench spot. But both players, predominantly left wingers, making the roster? Over Donovan? Not buying it. The last time Chandler was in a US shirt, his performance against Honduras effectively benched him internationally for thirteen months. Brooks and Yedlin have proved little in their few appearances other than they are not yet ready for the international stage, which is fine, they're both young and talented prospects. Green has all of a half hour in a US shirt or about as many goals (36) as Clint Dempsey has in his international career.
So do I buy into stories like Goodson and Parkhurst saying that Klinsmann's roster was decided on before training camp? Or that he and Landon Donovan still don't get along and Klinsmann's son was apparently not surprised at this? (Kudos to Mike Magee and his Twitter-winning post last night.)
It's hard not to believe that Klinsmann's mind was made up for reasons unknown. Or that there were agreements with Green and Brooks that they would play in Brazil if the joined the USMNT. But neither of them earned it at the international level where even a newcomer like Johannsson arguably has in such a short amount of time.
And I do subscribe to the fact that players do earn a roster spot based what they do with the national team during thequalification cycle. Donovan went on his now infamous Cambodian sabbatical and had to earn his place back with the national team at the Gold Cup, which the US won for the first time since 2007. Brad Evans was an emergency starter at right back and scored the game winner at Jamaica in qualifying. Michael Parkhurst and Clarence Goodson were both capable veterans when called upon in the Gold Cup and qualifying. Maurice Edu would have been a valuable substitute at both defensive midfield and centerback, two positions the US is not sorely lacking for depth on this roster (more on that later).
Players like Green, Yedlin, Brooks and Chandler are at the World Cup because someone else got them there, and I'm not a fan of that. There's a reason why Chandler hasn't featured since Honduras last year and why I say that the rest of those youngsters are for the future. Because the future is not now, the US needs not only their best international players, but players that have been with the team throughout qualifying, to get out of The Group of Death and sadly, those four are, right now, not even close to the best American international players. That doesn't mean that all four players won't be prominent members of the 2018 World Cup, but that's in four years, not four weeks.
Abram Chamberlain probably said it best on our emergency edition of Pickup Soccer on Thursday Night. If Klinsmann's going for youth, why wouldn't players like Joe Corona and Terrence Boyd have made the roster over Brad Davis and Chris Wondolowski? It seems that Klinsmann is trying to find a happy medium between trying to win at the World Cup and integrate some players for the next cycle. It's a good point, because this roster appears to be trying to accomplish both goals and yet fails to even come close to both. But that does account for the biggest issue I see facing the USMNT in this World Cup - chemistry.
Back in 1998 the USA was gutted when captain John Harkes among several others were cut from the World Cup roster. We know now that Harkes was cut for having an affair with Eric Wynalda's wife but the team chemistry was devasted by the omission of several key players from qualification. I fear that Klinsmann is walking down the same path by rewarding these youngsters with a trip to a World Cup that quite frankly, they didn't earn. And I can have little confidence in a US lineup that has Chandler, Brooks and/or Yedlin in it unless I am dramatically impressed during the upcoming send off series.
With that being said, the expectations for this team have not changed. I still expect this team to compete and get out of the group because that's what I expect every USMNT team to do at a World Cup. While I don't buy Klinsmann looking ahead to 2018 fully, the US first team is still pretty good, I put out a bold statement when the roster came out and I will stand by it. If the USMNT goes 0-3 in Brazil and completely has a 1998 tank job, Jurgen Klinsmann should be fired.
IF the #USMNT goes 0-3 with a -6 GD in Brazil, Klinsmann and Gulati should be fired. There are said it.— Jake Catanese (@JCatanese43) May 23, 2014
Apologies for the grammatical typo (I was drinking/podcasting) but the point remains the same. Jurgen Klinsmann has a contract that runs until 2018 but that should not absolve him of a complete and total failure at a World Cup. I believe that the USA is a top 16 county in the international soccer world and this country should expect, regardless of the group draw, to get into the knockout stages at a minimum every year. Qualifying for the World Cup is an accomplishment of hard work and should be celebrated by the players, but as fans it is something to be expected as arguably the top team (and at worst, second best team) in CONCACAF. Do I expect Sunil Gulati to sack Klinsmann if the USA does tank at Brazil, absolutely not. But then my expectations for the 2018 cycle would increase dramatically.
If Klinnsmann's and his roster come home from Brazil with three disappointing games and an early exit, then nothing short of a 2015 Gold Cup title, a strong showing in the 2017 Confederations Cup and a semifinal appearance in the 2018 World Cup will appease me. And that's not including the 2016 Copa American (which might be a senior competition) and the 2017 Gold Cup (which will probably feature a lot of fringe and MLS players like 2013) where I expect a good performance and another continental win respectfully. Because if Klinsmann wants to get his younger players experience, I expect that experience to be developed in four years to do something other than make it out of the group.
Unfair pressure on the younger players? Absolutely. But I didn't create it, Jurgen Klinsmann did. And the worst part is, as far as I'm concerned, he's put three defenders in a position where I can't see them succeeding. Why? Let's take a look my version of the USMNT depth chart.
GK: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
LB: Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley
LCB: Omar Gonzalez, John Anthony Brooks
RCB: Matt Besler, Timmy Chandler
RB: Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin
LDM: Kyle Beckerman, Jermaine Jones
RDM: Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud
LM: Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Davis
CAM: Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson
RM: Graham Zusi, Julian Green
ST: Jozy Altidore, Chris Wondolowski
First off, this is not a reflection of a possible starting lineup for the USMNT although as far as I'm concerned the lineup presented would be about as full strength as it gets. I personally think that the best US line up has Fabian Johnson in that left mid/wing role but this is an exercise of how poorly I perceive the overall depth on this roster.
First, if reports like this from MLSSoccer.com are true and Fabian Johnson has been playing almost exclusively at right back than I am by far annoyed at Klinsmann. This would likely mean Cameron is starting at center back over Omar Gonzalez and the two right backs on the roster (Chandler/Yedlin) are not good enough to start begging the question, why are either of them here. That would leave Chandler as the backup left back with Omar and Brooks in the center and Yedlin on the right. I know a lot of people aren't thrilled with Omar's performances lately but it seems drastic to break up your center back pairing weeks before the World Cup starts, you know, that chemistry thing I like. Also, if you're not thrilled with Gonzalez, what about anyone else on that backline? There's zero confidence in the second string defense as far as I'm concerned because no backline that has even one of Chandler/Brooks/Yedlin sounds like a good idea let alone all three.
Another area that concerns me is defensive mid, because for a position that is so vital to the US, only bringing one backup dosen't seem like a good idea. Can someone like Diskerud come off the bench or Geoff Cameron move up from the backline, surely, but it still would have been smart to have a versatile defensive minded player like Evans or Edu on the roster. Michael Bradley is starting for sure, and while I think Beckerman is a better option to start alongside him than Jones, but those are the only true center midfielders on the roster. It would be more likely to see the US play a more conventional 4-4-2 and push an attack like Dempsey forward late in games.
Klinsmann has the option to change around his lineup off the bench going forward, but in order to protect a lead it seems like he would have to maneuver around several players. With a projected starting lineup already likely to feature a new defensive unit, Klinsmann could also be forced to move his most versatile players in Cameron and Johnson around late in the game. Certainly a task both could accomplish but again, not the best way to let them build chemistry at their new starting roles.
Overall, I think Klinsmann's roster isn't built very well and is going to destroy the work and chemistry that was built during qualifying. If it works, I'll be the first to admit Klinsmann's genius but I remain skeptical at best at how this team will perform not only in Brazil but going forward as well. No matter what happens at this World Cup the expectations will be raised for Russia in 2018 and the young kids that I don't think are ready to contribute now will have to be ready in four years. I don't think the positives of mostly training time outweigh the potential negatives of massive failure on the field in Brazil.
Hopefully Klinsmann hasn't put young players like Yedlin, Brooks and Green in a position to fail because he's going to need them going forward. If he's asking them to get out of the Group of Death that is a tall order for anyone, let alone someone under the age of 21 with only a few international caps to his name. If he's only brought them to get better at for the next World Cup in 2018 then, unfairly or no, he's raised the expectations for those three players for not only Russia, but the entire qualification cycle. I'm not one of those "In Klinsi We Trust" types, but I really hope he knows what he's doing.
Because no matter what I think about the kids being on the roster, they're still representing the USA. And I want them to succeed.
Even that guy from Seattle who's not a defender.