Every national team coach has his favorites. Those mainstay players that always manage to make the lineup card no matter how out of form they appear or who’s waiting in the wings to take their place. It’s about having earned a certain level of trust, I’m sure… and while it does induce a warm cuddly sensation of stability for the manager, it can also prevent a national team from finding its best starting eleven.
Jurgen Kilnsmann knows this. He’s seen the extraordinarily organized and neat Bob Bradley writing on the wall, and knows that “conservative” and “defensive” are pretty well played out around here. We’ve been down that road, we know where it leads. Maybe it gets us a few upsets in major tournaments, but it ultimately doesn’t build a team in charge of its own destiny, one capable of a legitimate podium finish at the World Cup… which is the ultimate goal, or at least should be.
That’s what is so encouraging about the chances Klinsmann has taken with Team USA since being in charge. He’s been completely unafraid of benching established players in favor of lesser-known, rising ones, while still managing a strong emphasis on right now contention and success. Playing developing talent in decisive games may be more difficult than plugging in experienced veterans to just “live to play another match,” but it’s also the only way to grow a stronger team… and the only way to discover the full range of talent available to you.
Just take a look at the most recent Jamaica qualifier: In a “must win” match against a team that had just defeated them a few days ago, we saw a starting group with the likes of Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Graham Zusi and Danny Williams. Until very recently, I’m guessing those probably weren’t names you would have expected to see in the flashy ESPN formation graphic right before a televised game… yet there they were. Promising American talent getting a shot in a game that actually matters. Young players actually being groomed to help us down the road… I know, it’s weird.
Those four players made up half the defense and half the midfield Tuesday night, and while they were absolutely some of the most influential players on the field, all of them have yet to earn their 10th cap for the national team. Graham Zusi unleashing sharp crosses and dangerous distance shots, Danny Williams patrolling the defensive midfield with tenacity, Geoff Cameron continuing to impress and impose as a center back, and Fabian Johnson looking like a legitimate wingback to (finally) compliment Cherundolo on the other side… that’s what a calculated coach and a couple injuries to Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan can bring. No panic, no seeking of 37 year old stand-ins who can weather one game, but will probably be more suited to the broadcast booth once Brazil 2014 rolls around. This was an opportunity to get better, to get deeper, and Jurgen took full advantage while still getting a result.
Sure, Klinsmann definitely has one or two of those “go-to” guys (Jermaine Jones probably comes to mind first), but he’s shown a definite willingness to let untested players earn a place too… and most of these players are guys that add a dimension of creative/dynamic play, that as USA fans, we’ve been craving for a while now. But don’t think this is a wipe the slate clean overhaul of B. Bradley’s team either, Tim Howard is still the best keeper in stars and stripes and has managed to put about as secure a lock as a player can on a starting role in the national side. Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Carlos Bocanegra (who had to semi-win back his spot last match) are all still major pillars on the US roster too, but mostly because all these known figures have shown themselves to be some of the best options right now and going forward.
No one’s resting on their laurels here, everyone has to earn it… because Jurgen’s not interested in pulling any dead weight on the USMNT anymore. Strength in depth. Quality through competition. Those are the tenets Team USA will continue to live by as they strive toward the World Cup.
– Hamish Nieh, Editor of Finishers Forum