The decision to leave out the USA captain completely makes sense from a current form standpoint, but it is a major gamble for a team short on experience, leadership and stability.Say this about Jurgen Klinsmann: He is far from afraid of making bold decisions.
Whether it is throwing Jose Torres at left back in a World Cup semifinal round qualifier, turning Eddie Johnson into a left winger and Danny Williams into a right winger, or tossing inexperienced center back Omar Gonzalez into the fire in a road Hexagonal match in Honduras, Klinsmann has shown little fear of thinking outside the box in his time as U.S. national team manager.
Now he is taking aim at one of the pillars of this U.S. soccer generation, though, and making his biggest gamble during a time when stability and a team-wide focus are essential in the World Cup qualifying process.
Klinsmann's decision to drop U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra -- he of the 110 caps and veteran of two World Cups -- ahead of two crucial World Cup qualifiers is putting his methodology and level of respect among players in the U.S. locker room to the ultimate test.
On one hand, Klinsmann is sticking to his consistent approach of not rewarding players who are not playing regularly for their clubs. Only Clint Dempsey has really proven to be above the law in that regard during the qualifying process, when he played the entirety of two September 2012 games against Jamaica after being out of action and first-team training during his messy summer transfer from Fulham to Tottenham.
Bocanegra, who is healthy, has not played for Spanish second division side Racing Santander since Feb. 2, and Klinsmann has every right as a manager to assess his player pool and exclude those who are not fit or in form ahead of a vital set of games.
On the other hand, Bocanegra is a case that should be handled quite uniquely.
He is a player who has been there and done that and whose inclusion with the national team was one iron-clad certainty on which players could rely. During a time in which a wide-reaching injury bug has claimed some of the USA's most experienced players and leaders, an able-bodied Bocanegra offers intangibles like few others can.
His presence on the bench as an unused substitute in Honduras -- another Klinsmann risk involving Bocanegra -- obviously did not have a positive impact on the Feb. 6 proceedings against Los Catrachos, so Klinsmann can draw on that as an example of his worth as a non-playing asset.
During a week-long gathering in which the U.S. has ample opportunity to prepare, learn and grow together, though, Bocanegra's potential to influence the likes of Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler is an invaluable commodity, even if he is not fully match fit and ready to go 90 minutes.
In a segment that aired on Fox Soccer Channel's Goals on Sunday, U.S. veterans Cobi Jones and Eddie Lewis both vouched heavily for Bocanegra to not only be included on the roster, but to also play regardless of his club standing. This clearly demonstrates the disconnect in thinking between Klinsmann and some entrenched in the U.S. Soccer family.
"It's an absolute impossibility, truthfully," Lewis, who was capped 82 times between 1996 and 2008, said when asked what he would think if Bocanegra were to not be called in at all. "It's really a question of who's going to be playing with him. I find that very hard to believe [that he would not be called in]. Given Tim [Howard]'s current condition, the lack of leadership in the back five -- obviously Stevie [Cherundolo] is out as well -- that's a crucial part of it. He's the club captain. More than anything, I'd be concerned about who is his best partner going forward."
Experience matters. No matter how much potential for greatness Gonzalez has and how talented and versatile Cameron has proven to be for club and country, neither has been through the rigors of the qualifying process. For them to gain that experience on the fly alongside a proven veteran is one thing. To go swimming in the deep end without a life vest, however, is entirely different. Transition periods require a gradual process, not a flip of a switch.
"Next to [Gonzalez] you need an experienced player, and it has got to be Carlos Bocanegra," said Jones, whose 164 caps are the most in U.S. Soccer history. "I think he can actually do a little bit of the teaching. He is the leader in the back that helps this group go through the qualifying process."
Well, evidently not.
Klinsmann said all the right things Monday when addressing Bocanegra's omission, saying that he had multiple conversations with the 33-year-old veteran to respectfully go over his reasoning. He left it in black-and-white terms that not playing for his club means not getting called in and that being dropped now does not mean his U.S. career is over forever.
That said, Bocanegra is an extremely popular and respected captain whose exclusion could easily stir up some strong emotions and dissension among a frustrated group of players who have underachieved under Klinsmann in games that have truly counted.
When a coach loses the faith of his captain and locker room, he loses the willingness of those players to fight for him. Sure, being a manager is about assessing players, putting the best team on the field, making tactical adjustments and scouting the opponent; however, it also encompasses having a hand on the pulse of the locker room, managing egos and personalities and creating cohesion to the point that every player donning the U.S. crest has the same focus, motivation and drive.
As the cliche goes, high risk, high reward. If the central defense pairing that Klinsmann selects against Costa Rica and Mexico goes on to play well and establish itself for the future, then his bold move of turning the page on Bocanegra will have been vindicated and perhaps his decision making will inspire a stronger sense of belief.
But if the U.S. back line, facing two quality attacks, is left looking out of sorts, unorganized and desperate along the lines of its showing in San Pedro Sula last month, then making a healthy scratch of the team's level-headed, experienced leader may ultimately be a gamble that backfires in an unrecoverable way.