Jurgen Klinsmann has upped the stakes on a pair of modest October friendlies, naming a veteran-heavy roster to face lightweight opposition in Cuba and New Zealand in anticipation of the much bigger matches just around the corner. With World Cup qualifiers at home against Mexico and in Costa Rica on deck in early November, the U.S. national team coach said Sunday that, “There’s a lot at stake for the players to make their case, to show where they are right now … I’m sure everyone wants to be in the starting 11 in Columbus on November 11 [against Mexico].”
The race for those spots begins over the next couple days with the 23 players named Sunday (UPDATE: An injury to Alejandro Bedoya reduced the roster to 22. No replacement has been named, according to U.S. Soccer). The U.S. will train in Miami and then travel to Havana for the first time since 2008. After Friday afternoon’s game against Cuba, the Americans will head to Washington, D.C., for an Oct. 11 meeting with New Zealand. Neither opponent is expected to be very strong and the U.S. hasn’t lost to either in nearly 70 years. Instead, the competition is expected to come from within.
In addition to the 23 men identified Sunday, several additional players likely will be called in for the second game thanks to club scheduling considerations both in MLS and Europe.
“Now when the players come in they know it’s a competition, and at every position we have very good competition. So if they want a spot, I expect them to get their message across,” Klinsmann said. “These two games are very important for us because it’s the last time we can see certain players before making the decision on the 23 going in to represent us for the Mexico and Costa Rica clashes.”
Here’s a look at Klinsmann’s team for the match in Cuba (again, some changes are expected between games).
David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Ethan Horvath (Molde FK), William Yarbrough (Club Léon)
The biggest surprises on the roster are in net, and there are at least two of them. Normally, we’d expect to see one of the above names along with co-incumbents Brad Guzan and Tim Howard, But Klinsmann has enough faith in the veterans come November to let them work out different, but equally important, situations with their clubs while getting a good long look at the battle for the No. 3 (and perhaps future No. 1) role.
“I think the goalkeeper position is unique,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously we have the two experienced guys with Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. Both are in different situations right now. Tim is obviously very busy with the Colorado Rapids and Brad is not getting the opportunity to play at Middlesbrough. I think it’s a perfect time to give an open window to three younger goalkeepers … That’s why we decided to leave the two older guys out and give these three youngsters a chance to prove their point. That kind of opportunity is very rare.”
Bingham appears to have overtaken Real Salt Lake veteran Nick Rimando as Klinsmann’s preferred MLS goalie (not counting the newly-arrived Howard). The 26-year-old has been capped just once but has been a regular call-up this year, and his 1.13 goals against average is among the best in the league. Horvath was the No. 3 at the Copa América Centenario and Yarbrough is back in the picture as the regular starter at Léon.
Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
Klinsmann’s Copa América pairing of Brooks and Cameron may have been in some doubt following the Hertha stalwart’s recent groin injury, but his inclusion in the 18-man squad for Saturday’s win over HSV is a sign he’s on the mend.
Birnbaum and Gonzalez will challenge for minutes in the middle. Yedlin and Johnson are the clear choices at outside back, which remains the position of least depth in the U.S. pool. Chandler, who hasn’t played for the national team since last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, now makes his return. He was invited over the likes of Kellyn Acosta (a midfielder), Matt Besler (a center back), Michael Orozco (a center back) and Edgar Castillo, who have been called upon to fill in at outside back in recent months.
“Timmy Chandler is playing a good role at Frankfurt right now,” Klinsmann said.
Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Danny Williams (Reading)
The absence of Jermaine Jones (recovering from a knee injury), Kljestan’s dramatic resurgence and Pulisic’s meteoric rise have altered the face of the U.S. midfield, where Bradley is the only real familiar face. The newer names, however, belong. Kitchen, for example, has been named captain at Hearts less than a year after moving to Scotland. Arriola, 21, became only the eighth U.S. player to score in his first two senior appearances with his goal in September’s qualifying win over Trinidad & Tobago. And Gooch is getting his first look with the top team thanks to multiple starts at Sunderland.
Kyle Beckerman’s omission leaves Bradley as the likely defensive midfielder, with Williams his deputy.
There’s by far more flux in midfield than any part of the roster, but Klinsmann sounded like that’s a good problem to have.
“Obviously we have our core of players that took us through a very successful Copa América and the recent games, but at the same time you constantly evaluate and observe what the players are doing that are knocking on the door,” he said. “Some of the players really deserve a look. Lynden Gooch is a very talented, young player coming through at Sunderland. Danny Williams has had an outstanding season so far for Reading … For Danny Williams, we recognize his good performances over the last two months with Reading.”
Six months ago, Klinsmann was nowhere near ready to hand the attacking keys to Kljestan and/or Pulisic, but both have surged up the depth chart. Pulisic’s skill, dynamism and composure can’t be ignored—he’s both old enough and good enough—and Kljestan’s transition to Red Bulls playmaker has afforded him the national team opportunity he couldn’t seem to hold on to when he was in a more defensive role at Anderlecht. The pair combined for four goals and four assists in last month’s two qualifiers.
“The national team always has an open-door policy,” Klinsmann said. “Young, old, it doesn’t matter. But if you come in and get the opportunity, then you have to grab it. You have to put a stamp on it. That’s what Sacha did [last month]. That’s what Pulisic is doing. He’s making a difference when he comes on the field. It doesn’t matter if it’s from the bench or from the beginning.”
Darlington Nagbe, whose Portland Timbers are fighting for their playoff lives, Sporting Kansas City veteran Graham Zusi and Beckerman are among the frequent call-ups left behind this week. Meanwhile, Kljestan and Bradley are the only two players on this roster who played in Cuba back in ’08.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
Clint Dempsey’s absence may be lengthy because of a heart condition that has sidelined him for the remainder of the Seattle Sounders season. It will be keenly felt. No one is more clutch in a U.S. jersey. But it comes at a time when the national team’s forward pipeline is as packed as its ever been. Wood, now in the Bundesliga with HSV, has seven goals for the U.S. over the past 16 months. And Altidore is in very good form in Toronto (he wrecked Birnbaum on Saturday and scored his ninth MLS goal since the end of July).
Wood and Altidore have combined to score 10 goals in the five U.S. games they’ve started together.
Morris is among the players who may head back to his club after the Cuba game—Seattle has a massive match against the Houston Dynamo on Oct. 12—but the 21-year-old has handled a unique and challenging rookie season with such composure that it would come as no surprise to see him contribute in Havana. He has 12 goals and three assists in league play this year.
Wondolowski has found the net for San Jose only twice in the past two months, but Klinsmann remains enamored of the veteran’s work-rate and intangibles. Green is a somewhat surprising choice. The 21-year-old World Cup scorer has moved up to Bayern's first team but has played only once this season. Nevertheless, Klinsmann has preferred him to the likes of Juan Agudelo (three goals and three assists in five games for New England), Rubio Rubin or the returning Aron Jóhannsson. Gyasi Zardes’s broken foot also may have affected Klinsmann’s decisions in midfield and up front.