ST. LOUIS — No question the United States men’s national team needs freshening up. All national teams do, every four years as the World Cup cycle turns. Don’t forget what Bruce Arena famously told us back in 2002: World Cup soccer is a young mans’ game.
So the here and now of early qualifying looks like the ideal starting point for springier legs, a requirement for a long road to Russia, not to mention the big show itself in 2018. Old standbys like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Chris Wondolowski, Alan Gordon, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman and others aren’t going to be around and kicking forever, after all.
So the question becomes this: What is the right balance as Jurgen Klinsmann cooks up a balanced stew of young and old, hoping to fold the optimum ingredients into a dish more tasty than he was serving up over an interminable summer?
SEE MORE: What is Clint Dempsey’s future with the US men’s national team?
The Road to Russia — spoiler alert: you’ll get tired of that one before you know it — starts Friday as the United States gets into fourth round CONCACAF qualifying.
Eleven men on the current roster of 23 were in Brazil for last year’s World Cup, but 10 others have zero experience in World Cup qualifying.
“We started the process right after the World Cup, to introduce new players, younger players, and see how fast some of them could make an impact on this team going forward,” Klinsmann said Thursday from Busch Stadium. “Because down the road we want to be very competitive in the World Cup. So we cannot start that process six months, maybe nine months from the (next) World Cup.”
He noted the younger players are here in St. Louis because they “are good players, because they deserve a chance” to make an impact at this level. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? Some of them haven’t exactly distinguished themselves internationally. And while the level of competition in CONCACAF isn’t always hard core, the format of World Cup qualifying leaves scant room for error. It’s on Klinsmann to nail the proper balance.
Obviously, the nuanced dynamic of a few older hands to shepherd the fresh young faces will be less important in Friday’s cupcake opener. If it isn’t, well, we’ve all got much more pressing things to talk about.
A match against St. Vincent and the Grenadines is to this qualifying cycle what a ‘soft opening’ is to a restaurant: a window to get things right with the luxury of limited, potential damage to the brand. But lands beyond in this two-year process — 16 matches, assuming the United States doesn’t need that last-ditch series against Asia’s fifth-place finisher come late 2017 — will need the best blend.
SEE MORE: Questions don’t meet answers with Klinsmann’s latest US squad.
Beckerman talked about his role Thursday from Busch Stadium, sounding quite comfortable and well aware that his presence in St. Louis is about more than what happens over 90 minutes.
The program needs wins, he said in blunt assessment of what must happen to shake the 2015 funk. To that end, getting the newbies comfortable, playing to their tiptop ability, makes the Unites States a better team, he said.
“Some of these young guys will be around with the team for a long time,” the Real Salt Lake midfielder said when asked about the timing. “Anytime you can bring them in and get their feet wet, it’s a good time.”
But so many of them? Taken individually, there’s plenty to like about some of these guys. Everyone is excited to see what Portland’s Darlington Nagbe can do at the next level; perhaps a new set of coaching eyes can shake loose a few more thoughts and ideas, still. Red Bulls’ center back Matt Miazga appears to have a bright future, and that position has hardly been locked down over the last 16 months. That door is at least partial propped open.
On it goes – there’s just so many of them. That makes guys like Howard, Jones and Beckerman even more critical for their “fatherly” roles. Beckerman laughed about it.
“When there are more of them, you have to do more,” he said.
“They all want to be part of this. They want to gel with the team as quickly as they can. And we’re eager to get them involved and feeling comfortable. So it’s an easy transition.”
SEE MORE: Defensive midfield is Klinsmann’s biggest problem.
Beckerman also sounds like a guy comfortable with his own transition to a different career place. The October match against Mexico had a feeling of finality for a few figures, the 30-something’s like Beckerman. He smiled confidently at the questions about his age and about whether he was surprised to get the latest call.
“I’m always ready for the call when it comes,” he said. “That’s all you can do, and when it happens you had better be ready.”
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