Klinsmann’s Alchemy: Will the US Roster Formula Trump Individual Form?

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Unlike many other national teams, Jurgen Klinsmann has named a 30 man roster for the US national team camp and then will name his 23 man World Cup roster later. On cue, hundreds of journalists have channeled their fantasy sport inner banshee and churned out a thousand-and-one “who will he pick?” articles. The majority myopically focus on the century old debates of age vs. youth, class vs. form, defender vs. striker. However, no team is just a spreadsheet of players with grades categorized by positions. In all human endeavors, there’s a, surprise, human element. And World Cup history shows Klinsmann would do wise to focus as much on chemistry as individual skills.

I’ve already written about the US performance at France 98. It was an unmitigated disaster. The team lost every game and finished last. For all the optimism and modest success of USA 94, France was a haze of pessimism and poor results. Looking back, two things drastically upset the squad. First, Steve Sampson, the coach, rushed to cap David Regis, a centerback (who could play leftback) playing in France with few ties to the States (he married an American). Regis was nationalized in May 1998, capped in a friendly vs Kuwait three days later, and then started all three games at the World Cup. He replaced respected if limited MLS defender Jeff Agoos.

On a superficial level, Regis was clearly a superior player to Agoos. However, the rush to play him caused two problems. First, on a playing level, a back line is best baptized under fire. It’s easy to gel in a friendly versus, say, a minnow like Kuwait, but you find out what a player and defensive line can do in the oppressive atmospheres of San Pedro Sula or Mexico City. The rush to cap Regis and start him never allowed that understanding to develop. Second, the inclusion of Regis (the manner at least) rubbed some players the wrong way. Players ultimately know within ten minutes on a field how good a teammate is, but you still have to earn respect and show commitment. Sampson pushed Regis into a tough place. He could have started Agoos the first game, declared his performance a bomb, and then started Regis the remaining fixtures. He didn’t though. Upending an established playing hierarchy so close to the World Cup unsettled players, but not in a good way.

As Jurgen Klinsmann considers calling up Julian Green, the same considerations arise. Nobody expects Green to knock Donovan off his starting perch in left midfield, but he’s still a player that did not go through the trials and tribulations of qualifying with the group, unlike, say, Brad Davis. He undoubtedly has tremendous potential, and that was Sven Goran-Eriksson’s argument to bring Theo Walcott with England to Germany 2006. However, Theo didn’t make any contribution at that tournament and, potential be cursed, was not included in the roster for South Africa 2010. Instead of bringing somebody that could contribute immediately, Eriksson brought a youngster who won’t feature in another World Cup until maybe Russia 2018. Green’s potential makes him exciting, but also a liability. Could he be the Donovan from Japan/Korean 2002? Maybe. But he could also go the way of the Walcott. It is ominous that he filed his one-time switch and then immediately played vs. Mexico, a rushed situation similar to the Regis arrival.

The second personnel situation at France 98 did not come to light until a few years ago. For over a decade, everybody wondered: why did Sampson mysteriously drop “captain for life” John Harkes right before the tournament? Eventually, the truth came out: John Harkes allegedly had an affair with US striker Eric Wynalda’s wife. This was a major crisis, but Sampson still bottled it: he made a secretive and unilateral decision, true to his style. He did not call up Harkes and said nothing. What else could he have done? Well, Fabio Capello faced an identical situation before South Africa 2010. He leaked (perhaps) the affair to the press, publicly stripped John Terry of the captaincy, and then still called up both players. Bridge declined. Capello’s transparency and proportional response put the power in the players’ hands while minimizing the risk to himself and the team. Sampson, arguably, made a bad situation worse. We all hope no drama will enter the US locker room, but off the field factors play a huge role. Especially how they are handled.

Of course, sometimes late and sudden changes work out quite well. Many fans will point to the late inclusion of Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez in Bob Bradley’s roster for South Africa 2010. Neither did much in qualifying, but both were picked ahead of Brian Ching. Things worked out for the best, and, eventually, a coach does have to put the old horses down. Right now, Jozy Altidore has had a tough season, Aron Johannsson has cooled off, Wondo is enjoying a so so season so far, and Terrence Boyd caught fire. Will Boyd’s form put him ahead of Wondo? Maybe. For strikers, teammates at club and international level are often willing to embrace anybody who can best put the ball in the back of the net. For the third striker spot, Klinsmann could probably choose Boyd or Wondo without truly rocking the boat.

Lastly, US history is rife with stories of roster-bubble guys getting picked and surprisingly stepping up to the plate come game time. In 2006, Bruce Arena picked both veteran MLSers Jimmy Conrad and Ben Olsen due to their solid form, but also probably because neither would complain about a role on the bench or watching from the stands. Sometimes, gracefully accepting a playing hierarchy keeps a team balanced. Both were rewarded (due suspensions and injuries) with key roles in the last game, a narrow 2-1 loss to Ghana. Jimmy also played quality minutes in the draw vs. Italy. In 2002, Pablo Mastroeni was a late addition but, when Claudio Reyna got injured, he started vs. Portugal in the famous opening game win. Could a similarly dread-locked Kyle Beckerman step in and deliver vs. Germany? Or Ghana?

Nobody envies Jurgen Klinsmann right now. For every argument supporting a certain player, there’s a counter-argument for another guy. In terms of the big picture, that’s a testament to Klinsmman’s recruitment drive at US military bases and, more seriously, his willingness to give different players a close look these past three years. Here’s hoping, though, that he makes the decisions the right way and for the right reasons – chemistry is one of those weird things that can either bond or destroy. And US fans will never forget how Sampson’s 3-6-1 blew up in everybody’s face.

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