The U.S. national team already has its ticket punched for the 2014 World Cup, but bringing a full-strength team to October's qualifiers still makes sense for a variety of reasons.
Klinsmann’s key point for wanting as strong a team as possible despite already securing a World Cup place is a simple one. With so few opportunities between now and next summer’s World Cup to have his team together, Klinsmann wants to get his first-choice lineup more games as a group, and also give a few fringe starting options a chance to impress.
Before we look at how Klinsmann’s approach compares to former U.S. coaches in similar situations, let’s take a look at the 20-man roster he called in:
Missing are injured regulars Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, as well as regular Fabian Johnson, who was left out. Aside from that trio, Klinsmann will have the rest of his first-choice options in camp ahead of Friday’s qualifier against Jamaica, and the Oct. 15 trip to Panama.
Those absences should offer some good opportunities for a handful of players still trying to make their case for more regular minutes with the first team.
Bradley’s absence will offer a chance for either Kyle Beckerman or Mix Diskerud to see some playing time. Beckerman impressed in his start against Mexico, and is likely to start at least one match alongside Jermaine Jones in central midfield. Diskerud has impressed as a sub and could be a good option against Jamaica.
Another interesting option called in is Sacha Kljestan, who was left out of the last round of qualifiers, but has been enjoying a strong run of form with Belgian champion Anderlecht.
With Dempsey and Fabian Johnson gone, it should offer a good chance for Klinsmann to look at some different wing combinations. Klinsmann mentioned the possibility of playing a Jozy Altidore-Eddie Johnson forward tandem, but he could also deploy Donovan into Clint Dempsey’s normal role underneath Altidore, with Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya playing on the wings.
Fabian Johnson’s absence also means DaMarcus Beasley will likely keep his starting left back spot. Johnson’s versatility, coupled with the the rising number of good wing options like Bedoya and Aron Johannsson, is going to make it tougher for Beasley to hold on to a regular starting left back role if he doesn’t regain the form he showed earlier in qualifying.
When the USA secured its place in the 2014 World Cup last month, the initial belief was that Klinsmann might use the remaining October qualifiers to go with a team made up of youngsters and uncapped prospects. To do so at this point would feel like a waste, especially considering Klinsmann has already taken a pretty thorough look at most of his options in the player pool.
What these upcoming qualifiers can do is allow Klinsmann two more matches with his first team, with a few lineup slots available to give valuable experience to some fringe starting options. Those kind of experiences are far more effective than trotting out a team full of new faces, where lack of familiarity can make the experience less than ideal.
There will most certainly be hand-wringing over Klinsmann's decision to bring in MLS players in the midst of a playoff race, but that isn't Klinsmann's problem. MLS was aware of the World Cup qualifying schedule when it made the league schedule, which is why teams like the Los Angeles Galaxy and Real Salt Lake have bye weeks. That will offer small consolation to Seattle and Sporting Kansas City, both missing multiple players for important upcoming matches, but Klinsmann can't be expected to change his plans and worry about anything but the U.S. national team.
Klinsmann’s decision to bring his best, including having European-based players travel for qualifiers despite already having qualified, isn’t a new approach. Former U.S. coach Bruce Arena did it in 2001 and 2005. In 2001, Arena did leave some European-based stars like Claudio Reyna and Brad Friedel home, but he also called in players such as Earnie Stewart and John O’Brien for a meaningless road qualifier against a Trinidad & Tobago team that had already been eliminated from World Cup qualifying.
In 2005, the U.S. team qualified with three games to spare. Arena emptied his bench for the first qualifier after securing a place in the 2006 World Cup, but then, with time to select a new squad for the final remaining two qualifiers, Arena called in a group with a good amount of experience. He started six players in the Hex trip to Costa Rica that would eventually start in the opening match of the 2006 World Cup (including European-based players like Tim Howard, Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley). Four days later, Arena trotted out a far less experienced group in a home qualifier against Panama, a starting lineup featuring 10 players who didn’t play a single minute in the 2006 World Cup (the 11th player was Clint Dempsey).
In 2009, Bob Bradley’s situation was different in that he had called in his best available group into the final set of Hex qualifiers still needing a win to qualify, so after the U.S. beat Honduras in San Pedro Sula to book its trip to South Africa, Bradley passed on starting a squad full of reserves in the Hex finale against Costa Rica. He instead started eight of the 11 players that started in the Honduras win (one of the three who didn’t start was Charlie Davies, who was involved in a car accident before the Costa Rica match).
The way former coaches handled these matches should give us a good blueprint for what we can expect from Klinsmann in the remaining games. The upcoming match versus Jamaica in Kansas City feels a bit like the 2009 Hex finale against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium. It is essentially a farewell home match for the qualifying group, and a chance to put on a show for what should be a raucous home crowd.
The Hex finale in Panama feels a lot like the 2005 road qualifier at Costa Rica, a trip to a hostile Central American environment against a team still looking to qualify for the World Cup. That Costa Rica team was much closer to having qualified, but Arena knew better than to put a squad full of inexperienced players into a game at Estadio Saprissa, where the USA has never won. The upcoming Panama match should be a similarly difficult challenge, with Panama likely to need a win to have any chance of grabbing at least fourth place and the World Cup qualifying playoff berth that goes with it.
These upcoming World Cup qualifiers may not matter anymore for the USA’s qualifying purposes, but they are far from meaningless. They will offer one of the few chances to see a full-strength USA side before the World Cup, and a great opportunity for players like Diskerud, Johannsson and Bedoya to boost their chances of actually playing in the World Cup.