In January 2006, Freddy Adu was 16 years old and training with the United States senior team for the first time. Head coach Bruce Arena called the starlet into the team's January camp, a three-week training stint that played a massive role in determining who would make the roster for the upcoming summer's World Cup in Germany. Adu's youth and inexperience made him a long shot to earn a spot, but he had a chance to impress.
Why, hello there. The United States men's national team qualified for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil thanks to a 2-0 victory over Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. The win means that the American fan base can stop panicking about whether the Stars and Stripes will reach the world's richest soccer tournament (which, let's be honest, was never really in doubt), not worry about Friday's game with Jamaica, and start concerning themselves with the picking of the 23-man roster. Far be it from us to miss out on the prediction game. Without further ado, we present Jurgen Klinsmann's 2014 World Cup roster.
Crew Stadium just north of Columbus, Ohio, is something out of a bygone era in American soccer. When it opened in 1999, no one knew if Major League Soccer would survive. As a result, Corna Kokosing Construction Company built the country's first pro soccer–specific stadium for just $28.5 million. Fourteen years later, the aging venue with faded yellow backs on its bench seats holds just more than 20,000 people and a healthy amount of American soccer's limited history.
So, the United States men's national team went to another tiny Central American nation in World Cup qualifying and lost, falling 3-1 to Costa Rica on Friday night. I thought we were done with this type of ridiculousness.
Short answer: no. Medium answer: Welcome to CONCACAF. Longer answer: It meant more to the Ticos, and it showed. Costa Rica was pissed because the U.S. made them play in the snow (even though they wanted to continue, too, but whatever), and because Jonathan Bornstein (!) kept them from the 2010 World Cup in the most dramatic fashion possible. Manager Jorge Luis Pinto promised that his squad would go into the match "with hot blood and cool heads," which is a wonderfully lyrical thing to say and, you know, exactly what happened as they scored in the second minute (déjà vu) and again in the ninth.
Steve Cherundolo, Tim Howard, Stuart Holden, Maurice Edu, Brek Shea, Herculez Gomez, and Josh Gatt. These are members of the United States men's national team who missed time recently because of injury. Some of the afflictions are serious, requiring surgery and months of rehab, while some are less dire, but these are all players who have been unavailable at a time when Jurgen Klinsmann would have called.
One of the main reasons Klinsmann used 26 different lineups in his first 26 games as manager was because someone from the first team was almost always hurt. So, is the American squad particularly injury-prone?
On November 17, 2010, 17-year-old Juan Agudelo made his debut with the United States men's national team, wearing the no. 17 shirt and scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over South Africa. Four months later, the teenager found the back of the net in a 1-1 draw against Argentina, and U.S. fans were buzzing about his impressive potential. Was Agudelo the forward they had been waiting for? Had the phenom finally arrived?
The United States men's national team played 11 games in June and July, winning all of them. Along the way, the squad took home its first Gold Cup since 2007, had 15 players score a combined 35 goals, posted five shutouts, and conceded more than one goal only once. While Jurgen Klinsmann's side had some stretches of shaky play (set pieces, set pieces, set pieces) with long periods of dominance, it was always good enough to win.
The question is whether the last two months indicate some sort of American soccer sea change, a tipping point in the Klinsmann-ification of the U.S. team, or merely a temporary new high-water mark in the never-ending struggle to raise the level.
This is a cop-out, but the correct answer is a little of both.
All athletes come with an expiration date, and for soccer players, it hits roughly around their 32nd birthday. But like on a jug of milk, the date acts simply as a recommendation. While Gold Cup captain DaMarcus Beasley’s “sell by” moment will be past due come Brazil 2014, there’s a deceptive quality to his freshness. He retains a spry, youthful feel for the game, playing with a bright-eyed wonderment that a U-17 player could only hope for. The only predicament is whether there’s room for a player who is simultaneously too young and too old for the USMNT World Cup Squad.
The United States men's national team only needed a tie against Costa Rica at East Hartford's Rentschler Field, but did one better as a late goal by second-half substitute Brek Shea gave the Americans a 1-0 victory in their third and final group stage game of the 2013 Gold Cup. The win was the squad's eighth in a row, which broke the all-time mark set in 2007. Coincidentally, the team to set the mark was the last Stars and Stripes side to finish the group stage with a perfect record and, perhaps more importantly, the last one to prevail over Mexico and win the regional championship.
Tuesday night's match, played in extreme heat, was a rematch of the infamous blizzard game and, in the words of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the true beginning of the Gold Cup. "Players understand they need to step it up and that the whole tournament really starts for us with Costa Rica," he said Monday.
The match started slowly as the Ticos packed nine players behind the ball and dared the Americans to break them down. While Belize and Cuba, the U.S.'s previous opponents, didn't possess the organization, the talent, or the will to stay compact, Jorge Luis Pinto's squad was up to the task. For 82 minutes, that is. The U.S. goal came on a rapid counterattack, with Joe Corona finding a streaking Landon Donovan, who subsequently hit a perfect one-timer to a flying Shea. The Stoke City midfielder beat Patrick Pemberton, and the Americans held on for the victory.
The reward? A Sunday-afternoon matchup against Group B third-place finisher El Salvador at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium. (Costa Rica plays Honduras in the other quarterfinal. If the Ticos and the U.S. win, the two teams will play in the semifinal because the goal of the Gold Cup is to keep the Americans and Mexico apart until the finals at all costs.)
For this team, this tournament is only partially about the results. It represents a chance to impress the coach on an individual level. After three games, who has and who has not?
In the end, the quietest man on the field made the loudest statement. Jozy Altidore, who has stopped speaking to the media, scored in the 73rd minute to give the United States men's national team a 1-0 victory over Honduras in Sandy, Utah's Rio Tinto Stadium. The win, which leaves the Americans on top of the final "Hexagonal" round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying with 13 points after six of 10 games, exacts a measure of revenge for February's loss in San Pedro Sula and virtually assures the team a place in Brazil.
If an international soccer team is measured by results — which it is — Tuesday night was nothing other than a success. Combine the victory with a friendly win over Germany and two qualifying triumphs against Jamaica and Panama, and Jurgen Klinsmann's squad has had a damn fine month. It is, after all, impossible to earn more than nine points in three World Cup qualifiers. Sixteen points will almost certainly be enough for one of CONCACAF's automatic slots and 19 points definitely will. Qualification could easily come at home in September against Mexico, which would be sweet indeed.
If an international soccer team is measured by one game — which it also is — the match in Utah was less successful. The Stars and Stripes did not play as sharply in Real Salt Lake's home as they did a week ago in front of 40,000 Seattle Sounders faithful. The team created a number of chances, especially in the second half, and was unlucky not to score earlier, but it also looked out of sorts against a personnel-depleted yet stout opponent. Whereas Panama came out and attempted to take the game to the U.S., the Catrachos forced the Americans to try to break them down. The first half turned into a war with failed crosses minimizing any scoring opportunities.
On Wednesday night, United States men's national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann trotted out his 26th different starting lineup in the 26 matches he has coached. Not that it mattered. No combination of American players would have been good enough to contend with the young, creative, and excellent Belgium side that ran roughshod over the red, white, and blue at Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium. Perhaps Captain America could have helped if he had taken a break from filming downtown. But probably not.
Spend enough time in American soccer circles, and a casual fan will inevitably ask why the United States hasn't produced its own Lionel Messi. Which, of course, is an absurd question. The little Argentine followed a truly unique path to his otherworldly greatness, one that no country's soccer program could hope to replicate. If they could, Spain and France and England and Germany and North Korea and everyone else would have done so.
A better question, perhaps, is why a nation with the most youth soccer players on the planet has not produced another Landon Donovan. Or, expanding the scope a bit, why no youth class has matched the 1999 one that included Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, and Oguchi Onyewu, which finished fourth at the 1999 U-17 World Championship. Add Clint Dempsey, who is roughly the same age but was not a part of the initial Residency class, to the list, and you get the most prolific group in American soccer history.
Part of the issue is the cyclical nature of soccer development. "There was something special about that class," Tony Lepore, the Under-15 coach (not the Dancing Cop), says, adding that their early success did give some much-needed momentum to the fledgling program. Still, while the Bradenton, Florida–based group has expanded from 20 to 40 players, and has seen teenagers like Jozy Altidore, Freddy Adu, and Michael Bradley pass through, it hasn't produced the same level of quality as that initial Donovan-led class.
When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the United States men's national team in the summer of 2011, United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati tasked the former German star with two objectives: (1) qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and (2) remake the American program in an effort to turn a middling soccer nation into something resembling a world power.
Twenty months into the experiment, Klinsmann has succeeded in some areas and failed in others. It's been a battle, partly because those two goals come into conflict with each other. The need to win now butts against the development of players for the future. The head coach talks about imposing a system of high-pressure soccer, complete with skillful, one-touch passing. But changing a style and a culture while raising the overall level of talent takes time. And time is a luxury the squad doesn't have if it plans to reach Brazil '14.
The fly-in, fly-out nature of international soccer creates a scenario in which an entire season's worth of emotional highs and lows can take place within the span of a week. (In that regard, the whiplash emotional condition of the collective American fan base doesn't help matters.) Eight days ago, the United States national team found itself desperately in need of a victory, down a no. 1 goalkeeper (Tim Howard) and its top four fullbacks, and reeling from revelations of possible dissension in the ranks. Fast-forward to Wednesday morning, and the Americans sit in fine form, perhaps the highest they've been since last August.
Panic is mostly a matter of perception. The situation before the United States men's national team took the field at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on Friday night was this: With eight matches remaining in a 10-game tournament, the Americans — who hadn't lost a home World Cup qualifier since 2001 — were a single point out of second place in the six-team Hexagonal. They were playing at home in front of nearly 20,000 pro–Stars and Stripes supporters including 2,000 American Outlaws, the largest contingent ever. Jurgen Klinsmann's team was favored. Hardly a dire predicament.
And yet, the general mood in the reactionary, overblown world of U.S. soccer was that it was time to freak out. The sky was falling, ever faster after a midweek article in the Sporting News cited 22 anonymous sources who spoke about the coach's lack of, well, coaching, and factions within the squad. The mood was tense. The red, white, and blue — down four fullbacks and their no. 1 goalkeeper, no less — were in trouble.