U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has never been one to steer clear of a challenge, however, so he’ll venture into the Caucasus for Wednesday’s friendly with a roster featuring as many experiments and second-chancers as tried-and-true veterans.
Part of that is necessity, as a host of players based in the U.S. and Mexico are unavailable (or just finished with their seasons and exhausted) with the MLS and Liga MX playoffs on tap. A midweek exhibition in Krasnodar, which is nearly 2,000 miles from London, also won’t make sense for several Europe-based players looking to maintain their rhythm with their clubs.
But Klinsmann’s choices are shaped by more than circumstance. They say a great deal about his coaching philosophy – ambitious, open minded and optimistic.
For every Carlos Bocanegra or Michael Bradley on the roster announced Monday morning, there’s a player looking to earn his way back into the manager’s good graces or a promising young talent hoping to break through. The fact that Wednesday’s game (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2) is against a team the U.S. hasn’t beaten and which currently is ranked ninth in the world certainly won’t deter Klinsmann. Instead, it inspires him. In his 15 months in charge, the German World Cup winner has shown a willingness to risk defeat in order to test his players’ composure and resolve and expand the national team pool.
“We ask for these games in particular because those are big learning curves for us,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website. Playing in Italy (in February), playing in Mexico (in August), playing in Russia—we are not the favorites there. They are the favorites. And for us, we can take a lot no matter how the result will end up. … .I think that more and more the players get the sense that they are ready for bigger challenges and bigger goals. They have to set those goals for themselves. Every individual player has to tell himself they want to get to the next level, and games like this can get you there.”
Here then is a look at the team Klinsmann will take to Krasnodar, with a focus on those more surprising or intriguing call-ups looking to make their mark.
Goalkeepers: Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).
Klinsmann continues to have faith in Johnson, the 23-year-old Chicago Fire goalie whose year will be long remembered, but not defined, by his gaffe at the Olympic qualifying tournament last spring.
The Atlanta-area native demonstrated significant maturity in rebounding from that mistake and backstopped Chicago to its first MLS Cup playoff berth in three years. Johnson’s form can be streak—which isn’t shocking for someone playing a position that takes years to master—but his save percentage (75) ranked third in MLS among goalies who played more than 20 matches. A few more days to work with the likes of Howard and Rimando will help keep Johnson on the right track.
Defenders: Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (FC Nürnberg), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brøndby), Fabian Johnson (TSG Hoffenheim).
Russia is a fast, incisive team that’s deadly on the counterattack and which can score in the blink of an eye. Klinsmann’s defense reflects that danger—it’s composed almost entirely of veteran players he used regularly in the fall World Cup qualifying campaign.
Except for one, of course, who is the biggest story of Monday’s roster unveiling.
Chandler, 22, is a quick and skillful outside back and the Frankfurt-born son of an American father and German mother. In March 2011, while Bob Bradley was still U.S. coach, Chandler made his international debut in an exhibition vs. Argentina. He backed out of that summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, however, an official competition that would have tied him permanently to the U.S. program.
Chandler returned to the fold under Klinsmann, starting six consecutive friendlies in the fall of ’11. But when it came time to ante up for official matches–June’s qualifiers, in this case–Chandler again retreated. U.S. fan reaction ranged from frustrated to furious and Klinsmann said he was ready to move on.
But the manager never shut the door. While Chandler appeared somewhat paralyzed by the decision he faced–promising himself to the U.S., even if his coaches at FC Nürnberg weren’t thrilled about the time and travel commitment, or holding out for a less-likely invitation from Germany–Klinsmann handled himself with restraint and let the player come to his own decision. There was no wounded pride or early, public ultimatum and it now appears Chandler is back for good.
“I understand that a lot of people in the USA may be unsure because they think I have said (I’m committed) in the past,” Chandler said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A. “All I can say is that I am clear in my head about the commitment moving forward. This was about me being ready to accept the responsibility of being a part of the national team and everything that goes with it, and now I am ready. I hope I will get chances in the future. I am in 1,000 percent.”
Said Klinsmann, “He’s becoming a better pro and a more mature player and he knows now that once he makes the final decision that’s going to be his life. So I don’t want to put any pressure in a situation like that. The choice should come from the player. Obviously, there comes a time when there is no time left, and he knows that.”
That time is Feb. 6, when the Americans begin the final round of World Cup qualifying in Honduras. Playing in that match will tie Chandler to the U.S. for the remainder of his career. His inclusion on the roster for Russia, plus his “1,000 percent” commitment, leave that looking more likely.
Midfielders: Michael Bradley (AS Roma), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Josh Gatt (Molde), Joe Gyau (TSG Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Danny Williams (TSG Hoffenheim).
They failed to qualify for the Olympics, but they’re far from failures in Klinsmann’s eyes. Diskerud, Gatt and Gyau are making their way through the cutthroat world of European club soccer and have been rewarded with an invitation to Krasnodar. At least one of them is likely to see playing time, if not more, thanks to the extra substitutions permitted in exhibitions.
Their call-up, Klinsmann said, “is a clear signal to their generation, the kind of the Under-23 Olympic team generation that unfortunately didn’t go to London, ‘Hey, we’re watching you. We follow you. We want to help you get to the next level.’ This is first taste for them of what it means to be with the senior national team.”
Diskerud, 22, is a playmaker with two senior international caps, the most recent in January ’11. He spent the second half of the ’12 season with Norway’s Rosenborg, where he filled a reserve role, and was a starter on the ill-fated U-23 team.
Gatt, 21, is a speedy winger who left his native Michigan for Austria in ’10 and has been on Klinsmann’s radar for some time. He missed the Olympic qualifiers because of a late club commitment and had to back out of a September call-up with an injury. This weekend his team, Molde FK, clinched its second consecutive Norwegian championship.
Gyau, 20, is a rawer talent. The U-23 substitute was raised in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., and left for Germany in ’09, where he spent time with TSG Hoffenheim’s reserves before going on loan this summer to second-division club St. Pauli. He’s an attacker with speed to burn.
“Maybe they will even get some minutes in the game against Russia,” Klinsmann said of the unproven trio. “It also means for them that they go back to their clubs with bigger expectations. We will tell them that now we expect you to become starters in your club team, break through there and get even hungrier. So it’s important that we give these guys the opportunity to join us.”
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna).
Altidore reminded everyone of his awesome potential in Saturday’s 2-2 Eredivisie draw at ADO Den Haag, when the 23-year-old striker chipped the ball up and over a defender and scissored a shot into the goal from an acute angle. It was his 12th goal of the season for AZ Alkmaar, which stands in contrast to his year-long drought with the U.S.
After September’s lackluster qualifiers against Jamaica, Klinsmann had seen enough. The coach made waves when he excluded Altidore from October’s games and criticized his performance publicly.
If there was a rift, it’s now been repaired. Altidore has returned to camp, likely with a far better idea about what his coach expects from him. As for Klinsmann, he holds no grudges.
“We are happy to have Jozy back in the group,” he said. “Obviously he was left out (of October’s) games because of the way he played in Jamaica and maybe a couple of things before the last couple of months we were not so happy about. I mentioned it to him. Now having him back in the group gives us the opportunity to catch up, to talk through that stuff and also to see his total commitment on the field. We often forget Jozy is not a 30-year-old player that you would expect to be already perfect and mature and all that stuff. He’s going still through ups and downs, which is totally normal.”
Klinsmann obviously has a pretty relaxed definition of normal. He’s willing to be wrong, such as when he changed his mind about Gomez. He’s willing to opt for performance over pedigree, as his trust in MLS products like Cameron (now with Stoke City) and Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi has shown. He’s called Agudelo in for the Russia game as well, despite the 19-year-old’s difficult year of transition to Chivas USA.
The U.S. may lose on Wednesday in Krasnodar, but Klinsmann’s selections have ensured it will be an intriguing game to watch. He’s a coach who likes to take chances and who wants to be entertained. For those players who’ve been forgiven and for those who are the future, it’s an opportunity to come up big in a forbidding environment.