Jurgen Klinsmann must ensure the United States men’s national soccer team hits its peak form immediately and maintains it for another month.
Doing so likely will make Team USA hit its target for the 2016 Copa America “Centenario”: progression to the knockout rounds and perhaps a deep, exciting run toward glory. Failure to meet its potential will heap further pressure on Klinsmann and his team at the moment that attention and expectations are at their highest points in 2016. After all, Copa America 2016 is the biggest soccer event to take place on U.S. soil in over 20 years and could lift the sport to a higher level in this country.
Klinsmann announced the United States’ 23-man tournament roster Saturday. If any suffer injuries in the lead-up to and during the competition, the head coach can draft replacements from the preliminary 40-man selection he submitted earlier this month.
Klinsmann discussed his picks Sunday on Facebook.
Let’s examine two of Klinsmann’s choices, which will go a long way toward determining whether Team USA succeeds or fails this summer.
Brad Guzan over Tim Howard as starting goalkeeper
When Howard returned to international duty from a year-long sabbatical in October 2015, he and longtime deputy Guzan were in a dead heat for the No. 1 job.
The race now is over, and Guzan is the winner.
Both struggled at the club level this season in the Premier League, but Klinsmann said he picked Guzan because he has shown enough consistency at the international level in the last two years to merit the starting nod. The tournament gives Guzan, 31, a chance to demonstrate his ability and perhaps seal the top job for the rest of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying and the tournament itself. Guzan also might earn a transfer from relegated Aston Villa with a string of fine performances.
Howard undoubtedly will be disappointed, but he can’t sulk, as Copa America will define his legacy and future. In addition to preparing to play in Guzan’s place at any moment, Howard also must lead forcefully behind the scenes, helping the team maintain focus and belief. If he does, he’ll remain in healthy competition with Guzan. If Howard is a disruptive influence, his storied national-team career likely will end on a sour note at age 37.
Verdict: Klinsmann’s highest-profile decision is a good one. Howard gave up his job after the 2014 World Cup and hasn’t played well enough to take it back.
Chris Wondolowski over Jordan Morris
Jozy Altidore’s hamstring injury created a massive hole in the squad and a bigger headache for Klinsmann. How does the coach compensate for the loss of the team’s top striker on the eve of the tournament (and the ongoing absence of Aron Johannsson, who might have started in Altidore’s place if he wasn’t injured all season)?
Clint Dempsey and Bobby Wood will be Klinsmann’s front two. Wondolowski will be first off the bench.
Klinsmann indicated Wondolowski’s style of play better fits the needs of this team at this moment, as the veteran San Jose Earthquakes striker is a better finisher inside the penalty area and a better hold-up player outside than is speedy Seattle Sounders rookie Morris. It’s dependability over unpredictability.
Wondolowski, 33, also adds leadership in practice sessions, having played himself onto the 2014 World Cup roster and into Klinsmann’s everlasting good graces. Wondolowski has a chance to redeem his miss against Belgium in the World Cup round of 16. The errant shot might have broken another player, but Wondolowski has shown enough mental strength to keep scoring at club level and retaining a super-substitute’s place on Team USA.
Verdict: The choice shows how urgent the striker situation is, as Klinsmann presumably chose short-term gains over long-term ones in this decision. Morris probably will edge past Wondolowski in 2018, but he’ll have to wait at least another year for major tournament experience. It’s another good and gutsy call from Klinsmann.
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images