With qualification for the 2014 World Cup already secured, the U.S. national team heads into Friday's qualifier against Jamaica treating the match more like a World Cup audition.
The race now isn’t to qualify, but for players to secure their spots on the plane to Brazil, and with the player pool deeper than ever, matches like the qualifier versus Jamaica will provide precious opportunities for players to state their cases to make the World Cup team.
“It’s never been this competitive,” U.S. star Landon Donovan said of the depth on the national team. “I think before it’s always seemed like 15, 16, 17, 18 spots were sort of locked up and there were five or six spots left. Now it seems like there are a lot of open spots. There are a lot of guys who aren’t here that could make a case that they should be here. And a few guys that have been injured lately that are probably bubble guys too that will have a good chance so it’s going to be interesting as we get closer.
“It just keeps you going because you don’t have a chance to rest. In a lot of ways you can say (Friday’s) game is a friendly for us, and fun, but it’s not in that way because we need to keep impressing.”
With just five international fixture dates between now and the World Cup training camp in May, the upcoming World Cup qualifiers are important not just as showcase opportunity for fringe players, but also for Klinsmann to try out players at positions that are still being sorted out.
Injuries to regular starters Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez will open the door for some other leading candidates to impress Klinsmann and help their case in the race for a World Cup place.
Jamaica should offer up a good test for candidates at a variety of positions. Central defense is one such position, and Omar Gonzalez’s recent injury could open the door for Geoff Cameron to step in and start alongside Matt Besler. Cameron has played in a variety of roles for the USA, but these upcoming qualifiers could be his opportunity to show he deserves more consideration in central defense.
“We’ve always said that we think his best spot is center back,” Klinsmann said of the versatile Cameron. “Then he can also play right back and he can play defensive midfielder, which he has shown in a tremendous way a couple of times.
“He’s versatile, this is a plus, but I think his best position is center back. We always tell him to go kick somebody out at Stoke City in that role, but we are happy that he’s playing at least, game in and game out at Stoke. The next step is to push somebody to right back and take the center back job.”
Cameron was quick to point out that unseating starting Stoke City center backs Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth is easier said than done, while also pointing out that the more attack-minded approach preferred by Mark Hughes has made playing right back a more enjoyable experience for him.
“Obviously when you have Shawcross and Robert Huth there, when they’ve been there six or seven years, it’s always tough to break through a solid partnership like that,” said Cameron, who revealed he does get practice reps playing in central defense for Stoke. “We’re playing a different style of football this year so it might favor my style of play and technical ability.
“I’m getting used to playing right back under Mark Hughes. I’m enjoying it a lot more than I have in the last year or so under Pulis. Obviously it’s a different type of football. But I’m enjoying it this year, feeling comfortable there.”
When asked what he felt was his best position for the national team, Cameron said he believed central midfield was where he was probably best-suited.
“I’m comfortable at defensive center mid, center back and right back, wherever is fine as long as I’m on the pitch,” Cameron said.
Friday’s match could also offer an opportunity for Mix Diskerud to build on the recent good performances he has turned in, dating back to the Gold Cup, and most recently as a sub in the win versus Mexico. Bradley's injury absence means Klinsmann could start Kyle Beckerman alongside Jermaine Jones, or give Diskerud his first start in a qualifier.
“I started a lot in Gold Cup so I felt like I kind of proved what I have there, but every player wants to start of course and if I do that I’ll do my best,” said Diskerud, who credited his experience at the Gold Cup with boosting his confidence heading into the fall qualifiers.
One thing that seemed apparent in listening to Klinsmann and his players leading up to the upcoming qualifiers is the sense that the players who have made it this far in the qualifying process have a serious leg up on any potential challengers for spots in Klinsmann’s player pool.
“I’ve always said that the door is always open,” Klinsmann said about the prospects of any new faces breaking through between now and next summer. “Maybe there are some surprises still around the corner that we don’t know yet. In general, obviously we’re getting closer to the World Cup and throughout the last two years we saw a lot of players coming into the program, and some changes happened, that’s normal to have in a team between two cycles.
“I think we have a pretty good picture to understand where the players are at right now,” Klinsmann added. “Obviously we have a bit of an idea of how we want to play heading towards Brazil, but still we use those FIFA fixture dates to the full extent. That’s why it’s also crucial to have the best group here, and constantly work on certain elements we can improve.”
The battle for playing time is a fierce one within the U.S. national team, and the knowledge that opportunities to impress will be dwindling quickly has every player on high alert, which is why Friday’s qualifier versus Jamaica is hardly being viewed as meaningless.
“Next summer is going to creep up on us quicker than we think,” U.S. midfielder Graham Zusi said. “It’s a constant competitive battle within the team and that’s a good thing. We push each other as players. At the end of the day that’s making us better.”