Injuries and fitness have robbed the United States of most of its best midfield heading into a pair of matches with Jamaica.
The euphoria of beating Mexico at Azteca last month in a friendly has been replaced by the painful reality of showing up for a World Cup qualifier in Jamaica without several key players.
The depth and resolve of the U.S. roster will be tested over five days beginning on Friday in Kingston. U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann will be without two experienced and battle-tested midfielders, Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley, who are both sidelined with injuries.
"I think there will never be a game where you have everybody 100 percent on board. It's just the way soccer works. You always have to deal with injuries, with maybe some players not being in form or whatever it is," Klinsmann said. "We have some players who can step it up."
Bradley’s absence is unfortunate since the veteran midfielder has emerged as one of Klinsmann’s most reliable players. Plus, Bradley has more than held his own at the Italian club AS Roma and has the right temperament to perform in hostile environments.
Klinsmann understands the importance of having experienced players on the pitch for away matches. Donovan and Bradley, who both have World Cup goals on their resumes, give the United States a much needed security blanket in midfield.
The problems don't end there, however. Clint Dempsey is on the roster but he hasn't played in a competitive match since June as his prolonged transfer from Fulham finally ended last week. Dempsey, who has relocated to Tottenham, is available, but questions about his fitness level make him a risky choice for the starting 11.
"We are open to throwing him in the water right away against Jamaica," Klinsmann said of Dempsey, "if he's in a good physical condition."
Such is life during the qualifying stages. England, for example, is without Wayne Rooney, Ashley Cole and Andy Carroll for its match against Moldova. Italy will face Bulgaria without the talented and always entertaining striker, Mario Balotelli.
Life goes on for every nation, and this is where Klinsmann will earn his salary. He has options in midfield, including Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Jose Torres. Brek Shea, who set up the winning goal against Mexico, will likely come off the bench at some point, and Klinsmann continues to hint that Sporting Kansas City’s Graham Zusi could get a chance.
At the very least a draw and a win against Jamaica is more than plausible, especially with goalkeeper Tim Howard in the lineup. Who knows, perhaps in the long run having to play matches without Bradley and Donovan will serve the U.S. well.
Of course, if Dempsey proves to be ineffective, the midfield struggles and the backline is disorganized, this could be a troubling five days for the U.S. If so, no one will care about beating Italy and Mexico in friendlies.
"Yes, we can beat also big nations away from home, but it doesn't give you a guarantee for tomorrow," Klinsmann said. "Tomorrow is another whole new animal. We've got to go into Jamaica, and first of all, we have to respect them, and show that respect, and we have to be prepared to give everything we have to get a good result there."
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