If Coach Jurgen Klinsmann is looking for a novel approach at USMNT training camp this January, he could consider an intrapool scrimmage between presumed starters and players from MLS clubs.
There is little doubt that starters Klinsmann will employ against hexagonal opponents in 2013 will not include heavy MLS representation. If Landon Donovan opts not to play, that starting 11 might be entirely comprised of players from other leagues.
The question, then, is whether the coach has a good read of his pool or a blind spot toward MLS talent.
That question is what makes this intrapool idea so intriguing. However, intrigue aside, the idea could help the coach refine his understanding of available players and how they may fit into the larger puzzle.
It probably could not happen at this January’s camp. According to one report, Klinsmann is intending to hold a smaller, more focused camp before 2013 qualifiers.
That smaller camp, assuming the report proves true, will have some MLS players. But the MLS representation most likely will not include a sufficient positional spread to allow for a meaningful scrimmage.
If only for academic interest, let’s play what-if and prepare lineups for this scrimmage. Here are the ground rules:
First, assume Donovan is not available. That’s not a prediction. The assumption merely acknowledges the question is out there, as well as creates a cleaner break between American internationals from the two groups for the purposes of this article.
Second, player selections will be for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Also not predictive, but it complements the U.S. Soccer intent for a free-flowing style of quick ball movement, with some possession attributes. The prescribed set-up for this is a 4-3-3, but U.S. Soccer allows for derivatives, including a 4-2-3-1.
Third, all players selected must be eligible to play for the U.S.
Who would you pick for the two squads? Take a stab at it, if you like, and then compare your selections to what is suggested below:
Team 'Over There' Lineup
- Tim Howard, keeper
- Carlos Bocanegra, center defender
- Geoff Cameron, center defender
- Fabian Johnson, left back
- Tim Chandler, right back
- Michael Bradley, defensive mid
- Jermaine Jones, defensive mid
- Clint Dempsey, left wing
- Josh Gatt, right wing
- Sacha Kljestan, center attacking mid
- Jozy Altidore, striker
There probably are few surprises in these selections, with the possible exception of Kljestan. The former Chivas USA midfielder is having a solid season for Anderlecht. He also showed creativity, composure and international-class skills in the recent friendly with Russia.
Klinsmann may be more comfortable with Dempsey playing that center mid/second attacker role. If so, the versatile Kljestan could replace Dempsey at left wing.
Some might roll their eyes at the Jones selection. If this NBC interview with Klinsmann means anything, it is that Jones will continue to get playing time through the qualifiers.
Bradley is a lock somewhere in the center. Arguably, he also is a lock for defensive mid to help the team's vulnerabilities in the center of the back line, though with the green light to move forward per his read of the situation.
Gatt is an impressive, young rising star. There is little argument he likely will have a prominent role in future USMNT plans. Whether that role should start in 2013 is the question.
The counter-question, however, is who else could replace Donovan at right wing? Here, Gatt is an easy choice, because the most obvious alternative will be playing for the MLS squad in this notional scrimmage.
Altidore at striker is, admittedly, a name pulled from a hat. There are several options. None are great. Three or four are fair by USMNT standards. Altidore has found impressive club form lately and seems to have gotten the message from Klinsmann's earlier snub.
Whether Altidore or any of the other likely candidates can be above average by the standard of the 32 teams that eventually will travel to Brazil remains to be seen.
Team 'Over Here' Lineup
- Nick Rimando, keeper
- Omar Gonzalez, center defender
- Matt Besler, center defender
- Anthony Wallace, left back
- Sean Franklin, right back
- Kyle Beckerman, defensive mid
- Dax McCarty, defensive mid
- Brek Shea, left wing
- Graham Zusi, right wing
- Chris Pontius, attacking center mid
- Chris Wondolowski, striker
MLS is deep with keepers. Rimando, though the most obvious choice, is far from the only choice. He gets the nod here because he seems most likely to be one of the backups to Howard next year.
This lineup includes a strong middle for its Flat Four, at least by MLS standards. Given the nervousness many USMNT fans feel over these positions, some might argue that Gonzalez and Besler are comparable and potentially even stronger than Bocanegra and Cameron.
Gonzalez especially is staking his claim for a USMNT call. He twice has been named to the MLS Best XI, and in 2011 was named MLS Defender of the Year. He didn’t hurt his cause by taking home the 2012 MLS Cup MVP honors.
Besler was Defender of the Year for 2012, and a key part of Sporting Kansas City’s campaign. Sporting did not demonstrate much attack, but they were tough to score against this year.
Perhaps the most contentious selections are the outside defenders. Wallace and Franklin are serviceable by MLS standards, and both have made one appearance with the USMNT. However, these are the two positions for which there are no obvious choices.
Beckerman should surprise few readers. The Real Salt Lake midfielder has 23 appearances with the national team, though he rarely has impressed at international levels.
McCarty is a lesser known entity. The Red Bull middie only has five appearances with the U.S. senior team, but seemed to be ramping up toward bigger things under Bob Bradley, the former USMNT coach.
Likewise, the wing selections should sound familiar, as both Zusi and Shea have their advocates (and detractors) for return to the USMNT.
Zusi had significant playing time during the last stretch of qualifiers. More so than most players, people tend to see different things when reviewing Zusi’s international performances. This produces a large disparity of opinion of his merit as a USMNT asset.
He is capable of hitting some nice crosses, including one that led to a goal against Antigua. And if Donovan does not play, Zusi is one of Klinsmann’s known options for starting right wing.
Shea has had an up-and-down early career. With 15 caps, he has produced some memorable moments, including the role he played in the game winning goal at Mexico City this past August. He also has struggled at FC Dallas.
Between the wings in this lineup, we have the only player selected who is without a U.S. senior team appearance. Pontius is coming off a strong season with D.C. United, and he was one of only five Americans picked for this year’s MLS Best XI.
Up top, the choice is San Jose’s Wondolowski. Though Klinsmann may have other preferences, such as the more internationally experienced Eddie Johnson, Wondo is considered by many to be the most effective current striker in MLS.
What Klinsmann Might Learn From the Scrimmage
Team “Over There” would be stronger, as expected of starters over others in the pool. No matter the result of the scrimmage (and anything can happen in just 90 minutes), that perception would not change.
Much of the scrimmage would be dominated by midfield first-touch and passing composure. Bradley, Jones and Kljestan would most likely outplay Beckerman, McCarty and Pontius. This probably holds true even if Jones should present one of his more erratic modes.
Team “Over There” would have more possession and presumably create more scoring opportunities.
This would shine an immediate spotlight on the MLS players in defense, and especially on Gonzalez and Besler. The MLS center defenders could potentially shut down Altidore, or anyone else in the U.S. pool you may have picked as the striker.
The “Over Theres” probably would need some goal production from the midfield, which a 4-2-3-1 is designed to provide.
Gatt, though mostly unproven at international play, may be the fastest player on this field. In this notional scrimmage, it is a safe bet he would present problems for Wallace down the right side.
In front of the center defenders, the attack pressure would be high on Beckerman and McCarty. If past is prologue, Dempsey would spend time inside as a second attacker, and get his share of longer-range looks at goal.
This is an easy thing for Dempsey to do when he has a back like Johnson behind him. In attack phase, Johnson is formidable along the left touchline.
Beckerman and McCarty also would have to deal with the polished Kljestan and ever-present threat of Bradley working himself into strike range.
The MLS players lose that battle, which is the most likely reason the scrimmage won’t happen. It would be more for the benefit of the MLS players trying to make the team than the overseas club players trying to gel before qualifiers.
But if it did happen, Klinsmann might notice something more. There is a fair chance this MLS team could score, which could lead to some roster adjustments.
If Wondo was a nightmare for Terry, how would the porous center of the “Over There” back line handle him? Say what you will about English underachievement. That country has produced some solid defenders, and Terry is one of them.
Could Cameron and Boca handle Wondo? It is a fair question, considering earlier this year these defenders had difficulties with Guatemala’s Carlos Ruiz. The former MLS attacker is comparable to Wondo in terms of mobility off the ball.
Shea and Zusi are spotty at international speeds of play, but both can be effective. And Pontius is becoming someone the coach simply ought to know better. If Kljestan is not the center mid answer, and Klinsmann wants to keep Dempsey on the wing, then Pontius may be the next option.
Kljestan fits this "Over There" team and formation because, as a natural playmaker, he has aggressive scoring threats around him. But he isn’t a natural center attacking mid. Pontius is, though the still-young D.C. United midfielder is not as polished.
Pontius and Wondo working together would be fun to watch. If the "Over There" side allowed itself to get caught over-confidently pushing high in its attack phase, the MLS players could find a lot of space for counters.
While this scrimmage most likely would not lead to new starter selections, it could impact substitute choices for the qualifiers.
Gonzalez, Besler, Pontius and Wondolowski have earned more time in front of the coach’s eyes. The same could even be said of McCarty. The only question, at least prior to qualifiers, is whether Klinsmann still has the time to give a look.
If not, there’s always the Gold Cup.