Before the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Jurgen’s experimenting with the USMNT squad led to what he felt was a strong group that could win the tournament. Reality check: Not so much. More experiments are needed to blend the younger players that Klinsmann wants to groom with the current guard of veterans. The US Men fell to its worst finish in 15 years in the tournament. Okay, I hear you. It doesn’t matter. It’s just a CONCACAF Gold Cup. It’s not the World Cup. Which, by the way, we did great in even though we didn’t go to the Confederations Cup… And I agree, it’s not the end of the world or your world cup fantasies.
All feelings about the significance of generic friendlies aside, of what use is a berth in this non-World Cup tournament? Well, money for one. We missed out on the 2015 Gold Cup trophy – the winners received $1 million.
Let’s not pretend the World Cup isn’t about money either. Fool me once (when I was 10) shame on you… but never again. I’ve given up my idealistic World Cup dreams – you know, the one where it’s really an inclusive world cup. Money makes the sport grow, makes it more accessible, lines everyone’s pockets with what we all secretly crave, ratings and quality. And trophy money, regardles off the caliber of a tournament, comes laced with promises of future sponsorships and program development.
In 2013, it was announced that starting with the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup, the CONCACAF representative would be decided by a playoff between the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup winners, a rivalry match, which if you’ve been paying attention to soccer in the US, helps grow the game.
And why care about the Confederations Cup? The year before each World Cup, the host nation (cough) graciously hosts the Confederations Cup in which as the name indicates, all six confederations (North/Central America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania) send a representative to this exclusive 8-team tournament where you play against top caliber teams. That’s worth something, right? Hold on, before you judge me, it’s not that I care who wins this Confederations Cup, it’s not a source of pride, or a potential trip to Russia (yes, I’m not chomping at the bit really), it’s that these nations will have something all other World Cup participants won’t. A chance to familiarize themselves with playing conditions, venues, operations, logistical meanderings, which actually take up quite a bit of time and can cause a lot of annoyance without proper preparation. That holds true for most poorer nations who can’t afford scouting trips and pre-WC camps. Which I believe we can and do. And the last time we made it to the Confederations Cup was… 2009. But it’s also obviously a dry-run for the WC host nation giving them a chance to iron out any wrinkles that arise. So ultimately, do we need to go? No. Do we want to go? Yes. Should we want to go? Of course. I’m in the camp of treat every match like a non-friendly. It’s called competition, not fun play time. Take the prize and run with it whatever it is.
What to expect from the US?
Well, in 16 games in 2015, we’ve had 13 back-four alignments. An injured Brooks is out and Omar Gonzalez wasn’t called in. Either Brooks or Gonzalez started in 13 of 16 games this year, and Gonzalez was critical in each of the past four games against Mexico. His experience likely would’ve been helpful. So, as most know, that means, we’re a work in progress in the back.
But also, just a month ago, Jurgen was concerned about his strikers. Clint Dempsey is — I know it’s hard to admit he’s not a superhero — unable to be a one-man shooting army forever.
“What I’m worried in the longer run is to find strikers that on a international level give you a goal every second game at least. This is something where we have problems. We have problems to develop a young generation of strikers consistently scoring — in their club teams and then coming into the national team, in the national team environment.” – Jurgen Klinsmann
I’m personally a fan of Jozy Altidore. Because I’m old enough to remember the good days. Before he started having trouble adjusting at Alkmaar and then Sunderland. Before the recurring hamstring injuries and well before that really sad day at the 2014 World Cup. “In the bigger picture of the [national] team, Jozy is really, really important for us because if he’s in the right kind of state of mind, if he’s healthy and fit, he gives you goals and that’s what you need.” – Jurgen Klinsmann.
And now, with a self-proclaimed announcement of personal struggles his performance will be a wildcard even though he seems to be on the upswing emotionally. “For a little bit of time, it wasn’t at the forefront of my focus, which isn’t fair to the club I was at the time and also myself as a professional. I’m just happy now to get a fresh start and get back to that.” – Jozy Altidore. Jozy, we are all hoping you are happy out there on Saturday. This could be your final chance to prove yourself worthy of the responsibility Klinsmann is resting on your shoulders.
Meanwhile, the pressure is on many more veteran US players who have been workhorses for the USMNT. There are 10 players who are 30+ in the USMNT camp now, while more are on their way to being 30 and over by the time the 2018 World Cup comes along (Bradley, Johnson, Besler, Bedoya…).
“I will definitely tell the players once they come into camp. ‘Whoever is over 30 here, this might be your last final representing your country.’ I’m not saying they’re not good enough anymore—this will obviously be our best team—just that they’re not getting any younger, and younger players are pushing through. So I want them to understand and grab this unique opportunity. They have to look at it like if they don’t win this game, there might not be another.” – Jurgen Klinsmann, with his trademark tough love approach.
On the upside, the US is 3-0-3 against El Tri under Klinsmann, the longest unbeaten run any US manager has built against Mexico, and he has never lost to Mexico as a player or as a coach. I have little doubt he’ll keep that record this Saturday, but I do worry his tactics of alienating certain players, and not others, sometimes rubs people the wrong way and you never know when that will come back to bite you (cue, Landon Donovan). In spite of the jargon of fitness and who is at your heels trying to get your spot in the lineup, it’s clearly not always about proven results, sometimes it’s about not having enough choices, which points to a systemic problem that Klinsmann or whoever is at the helm has had to deal with and manage. Taking steps to shed more light, bring more resources to and put more eyes on the future development of soccer in the US isn’t something to shake off with a jaded viewpoint. That’s why the U.S. Men’s National Team is putting it all on the line to win, and not half-heartedly, this Saturday.