This piece comes courtesy of Josh Deaver. Follow him on Twitter @USFootballGuy
With so much trepidation before kickoff, there was a palpable sense of relief when the final whistle blew in the 94th minute of the U.S national team’s 3-1 victory over Guatemala. The crucial result had not only punched a ticket to the next round of World Cup qualifying but offered a much needed respite for weary and wounded American fans.
In the afterglow, supporters and analysts alike began to look forward to the next round of qualifying in earnest, kicking off in less than four months’ time. All I could think about, however, was November 14th.
The upcoming match against Russia feels as if it offers something more substantial than previous friendlies under Jürgen Klinsmann—a chance to truly experiment. At first, these games were exercises in developing a core roster, defining a style of play and showcasing American mettle to high profile opponents. Now with a place in the Hexagonal round secured and the home stretch fast approaching, it is time to start coming to conclusions about who the best U.S players really are.
Aside from a largely underwhelming, MLS heavy training camp in January, Klinsmann has rarely been afforded occasion to test the depth of his roster. The precarious balance struck between short term results and long term progress for U.S Soccer has, for the most part, stifled opportunities to experiment with young, untested players (especially those from Europe).
The London Olympics was supposed to be that stage, but the American’s failure to qualify dashed that invaluable opportunity for international competition. Forced to employ mostly veterans and his trusted core to maintain equilibrium throughout World Cup qualifying, the Stars and Stripes now limp into 2013 with a new mandate.
“Thankfully, [qualifying] is done now, [but 2013] will be extremely busy for us,” Klinsmann said following the victory over Guatemala. “We’re going to play friendlies, World Cup Qualifiers and the Gold Cup. We have to build two rosters for that because we can’t have players do both. [It’s] good to see that we have players now coming, also through MLS, that are knocking at the door.”
The need to increase focus on younger American talent has been a consistent theme of recent interviews with Klinsmann. “It is our job to help this generation,” he told FOX soccer in August. “We have to give them a path and possibilities to play and measure themselves. [After Olympic qualifying] they fell in a hole but we got to get them out and in sports, there is always the next game.”
Now, that next game, a mid-month trip to Krasnodar, Russia, is the first real chance to begin to undo the damage done by failing to qualify for the London Games.
With the way this FIFA friendly date is shoehorned into an already packed European club calendar, it’s likely a number of first choice players could be left off in deference to their club situations or simply for rest. With the Liga MX and the MLS playoffs also interfering with potential call-ups, there seems no time like the present to dive deeper into the U.S player pool. Pressure free for perhaps the first time in months, Jürgen Klinsmann has a limited window to comfortably scour the fringes and find the young talent to test throughout 2013.
There are several prospects who have distinguished themselves in 2012 and by getting crucial experience in the senior team picture, sooner rather than later, several could emerge as viable options for Brazil 2014.
Let’s take a look at which new and returning faces could be taking the trip to Russia.
WHO WE COULD SEE:
Omar Gonzalez: The LA Galaxy defender has long been making a case for inclusion in the national team picture, only to have his opportunity derailed by injury. Now healthy, with his dominance in the air and capable passing, Gonzalez is exactly the type of center back that Klinsmann wants. If the Galaxy are unable to make it to the Western Conference Finals, expect Omar without a doubt*.
Tim Ream: It is no secret that Ream has struggled recently. He has failed to maintain a starting role with Bolton and, when he does see the field, is prone to defensive lapses. In the past two weeks that Ream has started, he has been at least partially responsible for every goal scored against Bolton in the Championship. That being said, center back is a glaring area of concern and the former Red Bull man has been included on provisional rosters in the past. My feeling is that Klinsmann will want an up close evaluation before deciding his role going forward.
John Anthony Brooks: Playing for Hertha Berlin in the German second division, the 6’7 German-born center back cuts an imposing figure. After receiving a recent increase in substitute minutes, he has started four consecutive weeks for the club and has looked good doing so. If one U-20 player is poised to break through to the senior squad in 2013, a good bet would be on Brooks.
Eric Lichaj: Although inconsistent in his play and minutes for Aston Villa, the U.S lack of depth at fullback was laid bare during the most recent World Cup qualifiers and begged the need for his inclusion. The versatile Lichaj is at the top of a very short list of possibilities at the position.
Mix Diskerud and Josh Gatt: While different types of players, they could both be focal points of a second, younger roster to emerge in 2013. However, U.S fans might have to wait to see these two prospects up close as the heated battle for the Norwegian Tippeligaen and a Champion’s League opportunity could prevent them from attending a November camp**.
Alejandro Bedoya: After leaving Rangers, the erstwhile midfielder has since landed at Swedish side Helsingborg, earning a rightful spot in the starting XI. With a lack of true wing play in the U.S pool, Bedoya’s recent form in the Allsvenskan and the Europa League cannot have gone unnoticed.
Conor O’ Brien: The 24-year-old New Yorker has been a consistent performer for Sonderjyske in the Danish SuperLiga, earning high praise from the press and players alike. Although he plays defensive midfield for his club, he is a winger at heart and that versatility could help O’Brien’s case for inclusion.
Juan Agudelo: The 20-year-old striker made a huge impression on Klinsmann during Olympic qualifying, and rightfully so. Displaying a deft touch and ball control, Agudelo was frequently the dominant player for the U-23 side. Playing for a dreadful Chivas USA squad has done him no favors as of late, but he remains a promising forward in the pipeline.
*-As noted above, the four MLS teams who make it to the Conference Finals will not have players available for the trip to Russia, as they begin first leg play on November 18th. There are several MLS players who have earned a look, but Omar Gonzalez is the obvious first choice from the league.
**-As the Norwegian season is coming to a close, both are important figures in their respective clubs title chances. The race is extremely tight and if the cup winner has not been decided by the final day of the season, November 18th, do not expect either to attend.
-The Tijuana contingent of Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona and Greg Garza will be competing in the Liga MX playoffs. Along with Santos’ Herculez Gomez, they will not be available.
-Judging by AZ Alkmaar’s schedule alone, who will play league matches on the 11th and 17th, I would not expect Jozy Altidore to be in attendance. Given his recent exclusion from the World Cup qualifiers, the time does not seem right to bring the Eredivisie star back into the fold.
Follow Josh on Twitter @USFootballGuy