Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Truth be told, there might not be all that much at stake in Friday night’s World Cup qualifier at Sporting Park but do not tell the U.S. Men’s National Team that.
The Americans are heading into their penultimate World Cup qualifier without any real pressure after having secured their place in next summer’s tournament in Brazil last month. That still is not stopping head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players from taking a very serious approach to the match, one that will not only dictate how the rest of the CONCACAF standings shapes out and who else could qualify but also make a case for individuals looking to break into the U.S. starting lineup or roster on a more permanent basis.
“It’s never been this competitive,” said Landon Donovan of the competition within the team. “I think before it’s always seemed like 15, 16, 17, 18 spots were sort of locked up and there was five or six left (for the World Cup) and now it seems like there’s a lot of open spots. There’s a lot of guys who aren’t here that could make a case that they should be here and a few guys that have been injured lately that are probably bubble guys too that will have a good chance, so it will be interesting as we get closer.
“It just keeps you going because you don’t have a chance to rest. In a lot of ways, you could say tomorrow is a friendly for us and fun but it’s not in that way because we need to keep impressing.”
With only five international fixtures remaining between now and May, every match is crucial for the players and for Klinsmann as well. The U.S. head coach is still looking to fine-tune things and identify which players are capable of contributing before heading off to Brazil in about seven months, so the tilt against Jamaica is vital in that regard.
Yes, Klinsmann has, for the most part, identified which players are in the running for the World Cup roster. But the decision on the 23 that will ultimately board the plane to Brazil will likely go down to the wire as will the race for a few of the remaining starting spots.
Take Geoff Cameron, for instance. A reserve for much of 2013 after starting a good portion of last year’s games, Cameron could once again make a serious claim at centerback due to the absence of injured starter Omar Gonzalez. Cameron is expected to play alongside Matt Besler in central defense for the first time on Friday night, a pairing that many have been wanting to see given their good technical abilities and composure on the ball.
“We always said that we think his best spot is centerback,” said Klinsmann. “He can play right back, he can play defensive midfielder that he showed in a tremendous way a couple times, some times it goes better, some times less. But he’s versatile, which is a plus, but I think still that his best, best position of Geoff Cameron is a centerback.
“We always tell him, ‘Go and kick somebody out at Stoke City in that role.’ But we’re happy that he is playing at least from the beginning on game-in, game-out at Stoke. But the next step for him is to push somebody out to the right back and get your centerback (spot).”
The last time Cameron started for the U.S. at centerback was in February’s forgettable 2-1 qualifying loss in Honduras. Cameron looked less than convincing that day, but he was not the only one.
The whole U.S. team was littered with questions and criticism after that ugly match in which the Americans allowed their initial lead to slip away. But fast forward to now and the Hexagonal-leading U.S. looks as healthy a team as it has been in recent memory, winning 13 of their last 14 games, the Gold Cup in July, punching an early ticket to Brazil and boasting more depth than ever before.
“Ups and downs are just normal in sports and in a path like that we always talk about the marathon in World Cup qualifying,” said Klinsmann. “Sometimes it goes down to the last game. Hopefully (you qualify) earlier. We made it earlier, which is great. There will never be a perfect two-year stretch in that process. There will come some defeats, you will make some mistakes, you will try out things that don’t work out, afterwards you know it better, so it’s just normal.
“But I think overall we became a lot more consistent in the entire program. I was not surprised that we qualified through the Mexico game, I personally hoped to get the job done already in Costa Rica (in September), and so we always will try to improve in every area. But the last two years has really been a consistent approach and hopefully build even more and stronger consistency going into the World Cup.”
To do that, the U.S. will need to knock off the Reggae Boyz, who are still somehow not eliminated from World Cup qualifying despite not picking up a win through their first eight matches in the Hexagonal. The Americans are heavy favorites for this one and with good reason, but they are sticking to their usual M.O. by not taking anything for granted.
“We expect a very difficult game with Jamaica, because they still can theoretically qualify, so they will do everything possible to make that happen and surprise us,” said Klinsmann. “Obviously a difficult team to play against physically, they have pace in the team, they have individual players that know how to play. It’s not going to be an easy job, and we will need to be very-well prepared for that one.”
A win for the Americans combined with Costa Rica falling to Honduras in San Pedro Sula would assure that the U.S. takes the Hexagonal for the second consecutive World Cup cycle. That is something the U.S. is well aware of, and it is adding to the serious demeanor that the U.S. has as it prepares for a Jamaica game that holds more significance than it does at first glance.
“We’d still like to finish top of the group. That’s important to us,” said Tim Howard, who will captain the U.S. on Friday. “We did that last cycle and thought it was good. It’s also an opportunity to impress. In a World Cup year, there just doesn’t seem to be much time at all with games, so this is an opportunity for us to be in front of Jurgen and the coaching staff again, to be in front of our home fans and give them a little bit of a send-off as well.”