The U.S. coach typically attracts mounds of critics for his roster call-ups or exclusions, but his comments and choices shed a glimpse into his process ahead of some crucial games
Based on the general reaction when a U.S. national team roster is released ahead of a set of games, fans yearn for consistency in the selection-making process and almost always have a quibble with multiple choices. The latest roster release for the upcoming friendlies against Belgium and Germany and World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras was no different.
Whether the majority agrees with Klinsmann and his assistants and scouts matters little, but taking the time to read into his process should help clear up some of the confounding selections. Fans and pundits may have their own opinions and rationales that cloud the way in which the player pool is viewed, but there is really only one man whose opinion matters, and gaining an understanding on how Klinsmann sees the U.S. shaping up is a valuable tool to consider.
It behooves Klinsmann to limit transparency for the his own sake and that of his players, but little by little over the last 21 months in charge he has become increasingly more open when addressing the media, enough for the general public to siphon through the politically correct statements for the harsh truths and his process that ultimately determine the final picture.
In a perfect world, every player would be playing under the same standards and guidelines, but in reality, both Klinsmann's and in general, that is just not the case. While the lack of consistency in reasoning for call-ups across the board has driven some mad, a number of variables prevent players from being judged equally. There is no common denominator to judge the call-ups of Stuart Holden and Brek Shea along with the snub of Landon Donovan, for example, because each player and his situation has to be treated individually.
Based on Klinsmann's choices, both past and present, the "he's not playing for his club" or "he's not in form" argument pertains to some, but not all. Holden's call-up is with an eye on the future and reintegrating him into the national team after two-and-a-half injured years out. Shea has played all of 90 club minutes since the end of September, yet he offers a unique enough skill-set and physical traits at a need position, along with promise for the future, to the point that Klinsmann has rarely shied away from calling him in when healthy.
Donovan might be the country's all-time leading scorer, boasting a resume for club and country that rivals anyone to ever don the red, white and blue, but his self-imposed sabbatical affected Klinsmann's locker room at the most dire of times, and that's enough to override what he may be able to do for the team on the field, regardless of playing time and form (which are both a work in progress at the moment).
There's also the element of motivation, and if Klinsmann believes the group he has right now can get the job done, then it's on Donovan to truly prove his worth over the long haul before being granted the privilege of rejoining the fray. Some may not think that's good enough reasoning to leave out a proven commodity who fills a need position for a team short on goals, but those are the facts.
“I see him catching up," Klinsmann said. "I see him getting in a rhythm, getting more games in and we’ll follow him through that. I don’t see him ready yet to come back into our group. On the other hand, I see guys in our group that are ahead of him in his position."
As for another veteran's exclusion, Steve Cherundolo, the stalwart right back was healthy enough to play in five of Hannover's final seven matches, yet was not called in despite Timmy Chandler being unavailable through injury. Klinsmann's choice of words in a Q&A with U.S. Soccer to explain his reasoning for not calling him up wasn't the greatest considering recent events (that Cherundolo is still recovering from an injury and he simply needs time for his knee to get back to 100 percent), but there is a stated method to the decision.
In reality, Cherundolo is a 34-year-old coming off a significant injury that caused him to miss four months. Could Klinsmann call him in and have him play? Most likely. Is he also wise to ensure that an aging Cherundolo has an actual summer break to completely return to full fitness and be ready for the start of the Bundesliga season and the fall qualifiers? That is part of the argument he is trying to make, even if he has to compromise his past statements and call on less-than-active players on the club level.
"At the end of the day it all comes down to the positions that we have to fill," Klinsmann said. "Michael Parkhurst is fit and ready to go but is not breaking in (at Augsburg), but he’s playing in a position where Steve Cherundolo and Timmy Chandler both are not available, so you get caught in a situation where you have to make that compromise."
For a player like right back Eric Lichaj, who actually finished the season as an active part of Aston Villa's lineup, his lack of history with Klinsmann plays against his favor. The U.S. manager values chemistry and familiarity, and Lichaj has not been part of a U.S. team since the 2011 Gold Cup. Klinsmann is simply not going to throw a player with whom he has no basic foundation into the most important matches of his tenure on the U.S. bench.
Another notable veteran exclusion to Donovan and Cherundolo this time around was that of captain Carlos Bocanegra. Klinsmann's justification for excluding Bocanegra for the March qualifiers was that he wasn't playing in any games for his club.
With that no longer a viable excuse after Bocanegra played every minute of Racing Santander's last eight games, Klinsmann shed light on the harsh reality that some may not want to believe: At the moment, Bocanegra is fifth in his pecking order at center back based on ability. That's not to say that is so far off the radar the he won't find his way back during this qualifying cycle, but at the moment he's looking up at a younger crop of talent.
"You don’t have to make that compromise in the center back position - and I see Carlos only as a center back, I don’t see him as a left back - and there we are fully loaded," Klinsmann said. "It goes down to position by position, what is your ranking.
"I see those four guys that we have in there - with Omar (Gonzalez), with Geoff Cameron, with Clarence (Goodson) and Matt (Besler) - ahead of Carlos."
To read deeper into Klinsmann's process in order to gain an understanding, it sometimes takes more than glancing over a roster and coming to one's own conclusions. The answers, especially more recently, are almost always in the fine print.