On American Soccer: Dealing with the dual-national dilemma

The increasing number of dual-national players in the USA player pool has Jurgen Klinsmann facing some interesting challenges.
When John Brooks suffered an elbow injury recently, the first thing that came to mind for many a U.S. national team fan was whether it would keep him out of October’s World Cup qualifiers. Not because the USA needed Brooks to beat Jamaica and Panama, but because it would mean missing the last chance to cap-tie Brooks before the 2014 World Cup.

The subject of dual-nationals - players who can play for more than one country - is nothing new for the U.S. national team. It goes back in history as far as the 50s, when Haitian-born Joe Gaetjens was scoring the goal that upset England in the 1950 World Cup, all the way through the likes David Regis, Thomas Dooley, Earnie Stewart and more recently players like Jermaine Jones and Edgar Castillo, who both chose to play for the USA after wearing the uniforms of other national teams.

The topic has become a popular one again as the number of quality dual-nationals capable of playing for the USA increases, and the memory of having lost out on high-profile dual-nationals like Giuseppe Rossi and Neven Subotic still lingers.

Jurgen Klinsmann knows all about the dual-national situation. He has done an outstanding job of convincing several quality players to commit to the USA, like Fabian Johnson, Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud and most recently Aron Johannsson, who could wind up being the most talented of the bunch.

What Klinsmann has also learned, is that while he can do his part to talk to players, and court players, and give players a glimpse of what life might be like as a U.S. player, he can’t make the final decision for a player of which country to commit to.

“With all the dual citizenship players we follow them and we know that they can decide their own destiny,” Klinsmann said on Tuesday. “We talk to them, we communicate with them. At the end of the day they have to make their own decision. They have to feel comfortable with it. They have to talk to their family, and they have to follow their heart. And if they decide to play for Mexico or Germany, it’s their decision.

“I think in the last two years, at least since I’m involved, in many of the cases we’ve won them over,” Klinsmann added. “We’ll try to do that in the future as well. The timing also has to be the right one. You don’t want to call players in just for the sake of calling them in, and then they don’t even get to play.”

In other words, Klinsmann isn’t going to be chasing just anybody, and he isn’t going to rush players into being cap-tied or giving players international caps simply to cap-tie them. He wants committed players, but he also wants players who are ready to contribute to the national team.

The John Brooks case is certainly an interesting one because we have a player who looks every bit like a top-notch long-term prospect and last month Klinsmann passed on the opportunity to cap-tie him when the USA played Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. Initially, the fact that Brooks didn’t appear in that match seemed to suggest that maybe he wasn’t ready to commit to the USA over Germany, where he was born, but subsequent reports out of Germany cited Brooks as stating he wanted to be cap-tied.

What some may see as a missed opportunity for Klinsmann was instead a very clear opportunity to make sure playing for the USA is what Brooks really wants to do. The last thing the USA need is a player being cap-tied who still doesn’t have his heart fully committed to playing for the U.S.

Some would suggest this has already happened with Tim Chandler. The German-born Nuremberg defender skipped call-ups under both Bob Bradley and Klinsmann over the course of a few years, and appeared to lack the commitment to play for the USA. He eventually relented and allowed himself to be cap-tied in the U.S. national team’s World Cup qualifying loss to Honduras last February. That appearance was supposed to signal the end of the Chandler drama, and mark the first of many USA appearances for a highly-regarded player at a thin position for the national team.

Chandler hasn’t played for the USA since, and Klinsmann has offered not-so-subtle hints in the months since that Chandler isn’t really committed enough to be considered for future call-ups. At least that would explain how Klinsmann is still going with make-shift options at right back over a player who currently starts in the German Bundesliga. The upcoming qualifiers should offer the latest evidence of whether or not Klinsmann has decided to re-integrate Chandler into the squad, or decided he can’t waste his time on a player who isn’t fully committed to his national team duties.

If, in fact, Chandler’s situation has soured, it could explain why Klinsmann’s philosophy toward dual-nationals sounds more patient these days. That could also be a product of the fact the team is playing very well these days, and playing for the USA is a more attractive proposition now than a year ago.

Klinsmann can also rest on the fact he has already landed an impressive haul on the dual-national front. Securing Johannsson was significant, and if Brooks does eventually play for the U.S., he could join Johannsson as the best dual-national prospects to ever choose the USA. Two players who could wind up having important roles on the 2014 World Cup team.

That doesn’t mean things are getting any easier on the dual-national front. A new trend Klinsmann is dealing with is top youth national team players drawing interest from, and expressing interest in, nations with ties to them. Three of the top players on the most recent U.S. Under-20 National Team have been linked to other countries. Reports have suggested Mexico is interested in Luis Gil and Jose Villarreal, while a fresh report on Wednesday quoted Colorado Rapids defender Shane O’Neill as saying he would consider playing for Ireland.

Whether or not the interest is legit, or in some cases attempts by players to force Klinsmann’s hand into a call-up, it seems clear that the manager isn’t going to be chasing anybody. He will continue to communicate with dual-national prospects (and several quality ones are still there for the capping), but his latest comments sound like a coach who has learned his lesson about rushing players into decisions. And a coach enjoying a successful run gives him more leverage to say “if you want to play for us then prove it.”

That won’t make U.S. fans any less nervous when they read reports about top young American players considering other countries, but it should send a message to U.S. fans, as well as USA prospects, that the only things that will ensure a player gets a chance on the national team are ability and commitment to the USA.

In the end, it doesn’t matter how good a player is if his heart isn’t committed to representing the country he is cap-tied to.

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