CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Saturday, September 3, 2011
It's been a busy week in American soccer news, gaining a German-born player in Fabian Johnson and potentially losing two American-born players in Joe Corona and George John who have been recently linked to Mexican Under-22 and Greek National Team camps, respectively.
Neither of those losses are totally detrimental to the United States National Team, and neither appeared to be in Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the immediate future, whereas the newly acquired Johnson does seem to factor in.
Mere days after declaring that he would be open to playing for the US, Klinsmann named him to the roster for the upcoming Costa Rica and Belgium friendlies, indicating that the staff was excited about the switch in allegiances. Johnson joins Jermaine Jones, Timothy Chandler and David Yelldell in the list of German-born US National Team players, and the larger list of foreign born players from other countries.
While Johnson won't be eligible to play yet, his participation in the training camps should get him acclimated to the team as quickly as possible. His desire to play for the United States can be found in that he has already filed his switch with FIFA, tying him to the team, leaving no further option to return to Germany if they come calling.
Klinsmann's roster for the upcoming games didn't have many surprise inclusions as it seemed to mostly follow in the tracks of his roster against Mexico, or brought in other established players such as Clint Dempsey and Sacha Kljestan. Johnson is the only player making his first appearance at a National Team camp. Zach Loyd and Heath Pearce were called into their second consecutive camp, but both had to withdraw due to injury, leaving Klinsmann to call for replacements in Jonathan Spector and Chris Pontius.
For Spector, this is his first opportunity to show himself to the new staff, and if Klinsmann uses him, it will be curious to see where he puts the utility man who has found himself back in the defense for Birmingham City. Pontius, not to be confused with his man-thong wearing doppleganger of Jackass fame, finds himself in camp for the first time in over a year and could join Bill Hamid in earning his first cap. His solid performance this season with D.C. United has paid dividends, and shows that Klinsmann is serious about drawing prospects from abroad as well as domestically.
The game against Mexico was a good opportunity for Klinsmann to get his feet wet, and a better opportunity will be the September 2nd game against Costa Rica. Arguably the next strongest team in CONCACAF in recent years, it will be a good warm up as preparations are made for the journey to Brazil.
However, as useful as the Costa Rica game may be, the sterner and more foreboding test will be Belgium on the 6th, who will be fielding a full team, including wunderkind Romelu Lukaku, the former teammate of Kljestan who recently moved to Chelsea. There will be plenty of familiarity in the Belgian lineup, as Kljestan plays against Lukaku as well as current teammate Denis Odoi, and Tim Howard plays against his current teammate in Marouane Fellaini.
Other teammates squaring off will be Dempsey against Moussa Dembele, and Timmy Chandler against Timmy Simons. The Belgian squad is full of young quality and tons of firepower between Lukaku and Edin Hazard alone, not including the rest of the squad's ability.
But back to Klinsmann and his roster.
Out of the list of currently healthy players, the roster looks strong on paper, especially in the attacking half. The battery of Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury was impressive against Chile earlier in the year, and they may have the opportunity to play together again for the first time since that match.
Jozy Altidore has been on fire for his new club AZ Alkmaar, scoring five goals in the past six games for the Dutch club. The Eredivisie isn't what it used to be before the massive payrolls of England, Spain and Germany took over the continent, but the feat is still impressive and if his form holds up, he could finally be hitting the stride that he's been missing for so long.
While there aren't many surprises on the roster, there are a couple off the roster with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones being left off for the first time in recent memory, with Klinsmann citing club playing time as being a factor. While Jones continues to sit on the bench at Schalke 04, Bradley's move to Chievo Verona in the Serie A might provide the answer to his playing time woes, as he brings plenty of experience to a young midfield with aspirations to climb further up the table than their 11th place finish last season. While overtaking the giants of Italy for a European competition slot is a slim to unlikely possibility, the team showed spirited performances last year, winning at home against Inter, Juventus and Palermo.
The chance for Bradley to join a wildcard team instead of toiling in the relegation zone or second division is an excellent move, and the style of play adhered to by the Italians should fit him just fine. The idea of turning his loan move to Aston Villa into a full transfer would have also been a good mood, but he would have been forced to scrap for playing time. While I have no doubts that Bradley eventually would have worked his way into the starting lineup, Chievo represents a new opportunity to jump right into the mix and drive the team into the upper third.
They are not an effective offensive team, scoring only 38 goals in 38 games last season, which was the second lowest tally outside of the relegation zone. Bradley's inclusion might turn out to be a very welcome offensive spark, despite the defensive tenacity the Serie A is known for.
Another surprise exclusion is Herculez Gomez, who has been enjoying a fine season at Estudiantes, leading the team in shots and shots on goal. While he's only netted two goals, he has been a consistently threatening presence, and should get a call up from Klinsmann, who, like Bob Bradley before him, still needs to find a legitimate scoring threat in his forward pool.
That threat may not end up being Gomez, but he should be given a look under the new system.
In the most positive news of the week, Stuart Holden is finally nearing his return from a nearly six month layoff due to injury, clocking 80 minutes in a game for Bolton's reserves. Bolton sorely miss his presence in the midfield, to say nothing of the USMNT. While there is more midfield depth than ever, Holden may be the missing key that's been sought after for so long, to finally get the team to click from defense to attack. Having spent most of the past year and a half injured and recovering at the most inopportune times, the US has never been fully able to experience the ability he had when he was coming into his own and developing into one of the most respected midfielders in England.
Holden cannot return to full strength soon enough, and now the countdown begins to full first team action for Bolton, and then the eventual call from Klinsmann to bring him back into the fold at full health, for the first time in almost two years.
With the exciting week that it's been, and now that the European transfer window is over leaving Bradley as the lone big move, it's time to take a deep breath, relax, and get ready for the upcoming games. For the beautiful early September weather, getting ready should involve throwing some vittles on the grill, and enjoying an icy beverage while watching the next chapter of American soccer unfold.