In the wake of Mexico’s gold medal winning performance in the Olympics, fans of the US Men’s National Team understandably began to worry. After all- the Mexican trophy collection this World Cup cycle is remarkable: U-17 World Champions, U-20 Third Place, Toulon Cup Champions, Pan Am Games Champions, Gold Cup Champions, Olympic Champions. The US? Well, they beat a B plus/A minus Italy in Genoa, and… yep. There it is. The day after a gold medal win that had Mexicans taking to the streets in celebration, US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann quietly revealed his 22-man roster set to take on El Tri in a Wednesday international “friendly” in the cavernous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
U.S. ROSTER BY POSITION:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (6): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steven Beithasour (San Jose Earthquakes), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Michael Orozco Fiscal (San Luis), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim)
MIDFIELDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Jose Torres (Pachuca), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
At first glance, the roster is a mixed bag of veterans (Donovan, Beasley, Edu, and Howard), relative newcomers who are nearly primarily first-teamers (Cameron, Williams, F. Johnson, Jones, Torres, Gomez) and a bevy of younger/fringe players (Boyd, Shea, Zusi, Beithashour, Besler, Corona, Wondolowski, Castillo).
Why then was the roster met with such animosity? There’s no doubt the fire burning in the stomachs of US fans is at its hottest following our rival(s) success at the London Olympics. US fans were forced to watch as CONCACAF opposition stunned the field. While El Salvador ended the U.S. hopes of an appearance in the London Games, Honduras, largely believed to have qualified in their stead, eliminated Spain. Meanwhile, Mexico ran the table, going undefeated throughout, outscoring the opposition 12-4 en route to the Gold Medal.
This left US fans with feelings of what could’ve been, after watching one incarnation of the US U-23s trounce a U-23 Mexico team (that featured six Olympic starters) in Frisco, Texas not even a month before the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament. The teams were different than the Olympic versions would have been—but the win at least demonstrates how much potential the U-23 Yanks had. What’s more, the US was handicapped in the qualifying tournament (no Gatt, Morales, Chandler, Altidore and an injured Agudelo), forced to use second choice players, and bounced in the group stages.
As such, it is with an eye towards momentum-building that the U.S. travel to the Azteca, where, as you may have heard, they have never won. So why make the trip with a mixed A/B group? Let’s dive into it.
Many US fans wanted this to either be a team of all “B” players, that is, upcoming youth and impressive fringe players, eager to prove themselves to Klinsmann as the full slate of World Cup Qualifiers continues next month. Others wanted a complete, best available “A” team, sent to Mexico in the hopes of becoming the first US team to beat Mexico on Mexican soil. Players like Josh Gatt, Chris Pontius, Joe Gyau, John Anthony-Brooks, and Andrew Wooten were all on fans wish lists for the “B” team. The reality? What Klinsmann is bringing is neither—but it is a roster full of names Yanks fans have seen over and over again, for better or worse.
MLS’ leading scorer Chris Wondolowski is in the fold, and his statistics certainly support another call-up. He has netted 51 league goals in his last 79 games. That’s a pretty impressive strike rate when you look at it on paper. It’s his international record that has most fans shaking their heads: 8 caps, 0 goals. Rightly or wrongly, most supporters want to consider Wondolowski a tried and failed experiment, unable to bring his timely goal scoring from San Jose in to the fold with his national team.
The same can be said for defender Michael Orozco-Fiscal. The scapegoat the last time the US played in the Olympics in 2008 (his elbow to the head of Solomon Okoronkwo in the 3rd minute of the US’ final group stage match all but eliminated the US from contention), Orozco-Fiscal is now a steady squad player for Liga MX club San Luis. Jurgen Klinsmann’s apparent love affair with him was well known during the beginning of Klinsmann’s reign, as he made three appearances for the US in the latter part of 2011. If Orozco-Fiscal has a strength (his game so often seems average throughout), its helping maintain and build possession from the back, long a bugaboo of US international sides. When he plays well, his distribution is crisp and his decision-making is quick and steady. He’s also familiar with the Estadio Azteca. But it’s always seemed to be a different game for him internationally, and there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest Wednesday evening will be any different.
Upon seeing this roster, many US fans questioned “Why even play this game? At best, a respectable loss should be what to expect.” But this is a friendly after all, where wins and losses don’t matter so much as the experience that can come from a match at the Azteca. (At least that’s what the Company Line will be if the US, as expected, are beaten) Then again, this is the first “friendly” between the US and Mexico on Mexican soil since 1984. When one looks closer at this roster, you can see what I think Klinsmann is driving at. Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, and Tim Howard are the only players on the squad to have ever played against Mexico in Azteca. Combine them with USMNT regular Maurice Edu, and they have 354 international caps between them. That leaves 134 caps between the remaining 18 squad players, or an average of 7.4 per player. What those remaining 18 players can get from this game being exposed to what an intimidating and hostile environment really is. Cups of beer and other unspeakable liquids and projectiles have come to be expected when the US visits Azteca.
Wednesday night will be no different, and in the wake of a gold medal Mexican fans are likely to never allow the US to forget– it may be even more rabid. So in some respects, it’s as big a gut-check without consequences as Klinsmann can muster. Why not bring an inexperienced group and throw them into the fire? If you lose, you were supposed to. If you win, or even draw– well- you’re a genius. It’s a win-win roster for Jurgen.
As the US moves in to the full fledged schedule of World Cup Qualifying matches in the next two months, the experience gained by these players at this game will immensely aid in their in-game composure. If 110,000 screaming Mexican fans can’t throw you off your game, then not much else can. Of course, there is the concern that the young group (even with a large base of Mexican league players) might collapse and the US will be embarrassed.
The defenders called in are of particular concern for most US fans. Among the six called in, they have a combined 21 caps, with Edgar Castillo and Fabian Johnson tied with six a piece. Sporting Kansas City central defender Matt Besler will look to earn his first cap in his first ever call up to the US squad, as will San Jose Earthquakes right back Steven Beitashour, who’s enjoying a career season and played very well for the MLS All-Stars when they took on Chelsea and is the only true right back in the squad. But a preseason Chelsea squad in front of a favorable crowd is child’s play compared to Estadio Azteca’s highly hostile environment. This is after all, a no-holds-barred brawl between two countries with little if any care for the other, in terms of soccer at least– hardly a typical friendly. A starting backline for the US could be this: Beitashour, Cameron, Orozco-Fiscal, Johnson. Yikes, talk about your trial by fire Mr. Beitashour.
It will be interesting to see what Klinsmann decides to do with the multiple CDMs in this camp. Jones, Edu, Williams, and Beckerman all claim that role, but we’ve seen Klinsmann put Williams at RW on occasion. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see a five-man midfield consisting of Jones and Edu as holders, with Williams, Torres, and Donovan making the forward runs. Given Beitashour’s preference to break forward, Williams at RM can almost slip inside as a 3rd CM when Mexico are in possession. Brek Shea is an intriguing inclusion, especially during a season where he is struggling on field and having confrontations with his coach off of it. Shea is bursting at the seams with talent, but after a wonderful last season, his current campaign leaves much to be desired.
At forward, it’s the aforementioned Wondolowski who one would think is about to be given his chance to prove he can contribute to this team. Joined by the exuberant Boyd and clinical Gomez, the US attack at least looks to be in good hands. I favor Boyd or Gomez to start, based on Gomez’s experience or Boyd’s go get-em attitude. Wondolowski could sneak in here, as his off-the-ball movement and knack for critical goals for his club team is second to none. Can he put it all together in Azteca though? And can Wondolowski figure out how to do internationally what he does so well at the club level: move off the ball. The American counterattack– so textbook impressive at the Azteca the last time the US was here-– will need to function flawlessly to have any chance at a result.
Ultimately, the outcome of this match has little to no meaning. Only if the US were to lose by some dramatic margin would there be any serious repercussions as a result. True enough, Klinsmann is going to go for the win, but the heart of this fixture lies in the invaluable experienced that can be gained from it by the newcomers and fringe players. It signals an end to the times of scheduling mediocre opponents at home. Belgium in Belgium, France in France, Slovenia in Slovenia, two January matches, one being away, instead of the usual one at home, Italy in Italy, Brazil at home in front of 40,000 Selecao fans, Mexico in Mexico and potentially Russia in Russia in November. Klinsmann is signaling a change in the culture of the way the US is going to schedule games. The friendlies are going to be meaningful examinations of where the US currently stands collectively, as opposed to inferior middle-of-the-road teams with which the US can experiment and showcase. Players are gathering as we speak, so let the examination continue.
Connor Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and you can, and should follow him on Twitter at @USAGunnerWalsh.