Coach Jurgen Klinsmann says that players returning to MLS, injuries and tough World Cup draw are simply hurdles team must overcome.
By Phil Schoen (@PhilSchoen)
Mark down the date October 15, 2013. That is the day Jürgen Klinsmann's world turned upside down. A day that ended in victory set the stage for the Shakespearean tempest that followed. All that is missing is the witch that cursed him.
The tragedies unfolding in Ukraine this week carry a heavy human toll. While the effect it is having on the United States soccer team's preparation for the World Cup pales in comparison, it does exist. A friendly between the two nations, tentatively set for March 5, is Klinsmann's last real chance to bring his European players into camp before he announces his World Cup roster. (There is another friendly against Mexico set for early April, but since that date is not on the FIFA calendar, European clubs will not need to release their players.)
Since the U.S. qualified for its seventh straight World Cup, it seems anything that could go wrong has gone wrong. This is yet another roadblock for the German-born boss, just when things looked to be full-steam ahead. The tide actually started to turn with those very goals that gave the U.S. the win in Panama, because they also kept Mexico's World Cup dreams alive. El Tri took the opportunity to punch its ticket to Brazil in a playoff.
As in all good Shakespeare, there was a further twist. Two months later in the World Cup draw, fortune shined on Mexico again—with a good chance to edge out Croatia and Cameroon in the race to finish second to Brazil in their group.
What did the U.S. get for its benevolence? They were drawn into the Group of Death with Germany, Ghana and Portugal—with the worst travel schedule of any team in Brazil.
Recently, cornerstone players have departed the rigors of Europe for big paydays in Major League Soccer as Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley hooked up with Seattle and Toronto, respectively. Maurice Edu also came home to join Philadelphia. Klinsmann was right when he said this was great news for soccer in the United States—but notice he did not say it was a great day for his U.S. national team.
Two other likely starters, Omar Gonzalez and Graham Zusi, elected to take the money and not run. So now, the only starting U.S. field player currently in a top European league is striker Jozy Altidore, but after an ice-cold start at Sunderland, he's moving further and further to the fringes.
Klinsmann said he wanted his domestic players to go on loan to Europe to stay sharp during MLS's long offseason. Landon Donovan did not want to go, and no European teams came calling for anyone else.
The U.S. boss admits his players do not get the respect they deserve. A change in attitude is needed. He admits advancing to the later rounds of a World Cup would go a long way toward changing perceptions.
Then there were the injuries. Regulars like Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya have been stricken. Stuart Holden, Josh Gatt and Steve Cherundolo are also in a race against time to make the cut. Just as they were playing well enough to enter the picture again, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, Tim Ream, Eric Lichaj and Oguchi Onyewu get hurt again.
It's not all negative, as Juan Agudelo has finally made the jump to Europe, loaned out by Stoke to Dutch challengers Utrecht. He is playing well, as are Danny Williams at Reading and Will Packwood at Birmingham. Moreover, Aron Johansson, who scored the final goal in Panama City, has not stopped scoring. He is third on the Eredivisie scoring charts.
A true sign that the light at the end of the tunnel is not an onrushing train would be if Bayern Munich's Tampa-born prodigy Julian Green commits to Klinsmann's cause. While young and raw, he shares the same game-changing ability Donovan displayed back in the 2002 World Cup. Green was supposed to show up for training in Frankfurt before the team traveled to Ukraine, but now that could be in doubt.
The brightest beacon of optimism is Klinsmann himself. After a rough start to qualifying, he led the U.S. to a Gold Cup crown, its seventh straight World Cup and its best yearly record in history. October 15, 2013—the night of a dramatic comeback win to oust Panama, crown the U.S. as kings of CONCACAF and whet the appetite of its fans—only to run them through the ringer with a steady stream of bad news.
Klinsmann admits the bumps and potholes will not make things easy, but he says his team will surprise favorites Germany or Portugal and emerge from the Group of Death. If so, that fateful night in October did not bring down the curtain, it just set the stage for something bigger.