Competition continues to be open, fierce at center back for US national team
WASHINGTON – Captaining your country and earning more than 100 caps does not guarantee a place in the US national team under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, as Carlos Bocanegra can attest. Neither does pitching a shutout in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, it seems, or garnering a snow-covered 1-0 qualifying victory over Costa Rica.
The battle for the USMNT's two starting center back positions is as fierce as it's been in years, with four solid candidates called into the current team and other good ones left at home.
And if anyone has a clear idea of who Klinsmann will start against Germany at RFK Stadium on Sunday (2:30 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMas, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), they're not saying.
“I have no idea,” said Matt Besler ahead of the USA's Friday afternoon training session at American University in Northwest D.C. when asked if he expected to be in Sunday's first 11. “If I am, I'll be ready.”
Besler came off the bench in Wednesday's 4-2 humbling – “We got our butts kicked,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard on Friday – by Belgium in Cleveland. And if the shaky performance of Omar Gonzalez and Clarence Goodson in that game does not prompt Klinsmann and his staff to make a change or two at the back, the reality of playing five games in 21 days surely will.
“We've got five games and there's bound to be changes,” said Howard. “There will certainly be some changes.”
Howard went on to underline the importance of building unity and understanding along the back line.
“We'll have to be [more organized],” he said. “That's the biggest part of any team, not just this team ... that's the catalyst and the foundation for any good team, so we're always trying to work on that.
“Playing in a back four, playing with a defensive unit, it's all about trust. And that trust is built on and off the field and it's not something that can happen overnight. It takes time, it really does. Eventually we're going to get that right.”
Many observers thought March's brave 0-0 draw against Mexico, where Besler and Gonzalez were excellent under sustained pressure, would have settled the center back question for the time being. Yet the technical staff is emphasizing the open nature of the competition for playing time in the USMNT defense, and seem ready to chop and change as they see fit.
“I think everyone here is in the mindset that they're competing an vying for a starting spot. That's definitely my mindset as well,” said Besler, whose situation has been complicated by a knee injury earlier this month.
“I'm feeling good,” he said on Friday. “I missed a couple games the last couple weeks with Sporting, so the fitness for me probably isn't 100 percent, but I feel good and it's very close to that.”
The diverse challenges presented by upcoming opponents Germany, Jamaica, Panama and Honduras will clearly influence Klinsmann's decisions as well.
Besler's passing ability may give him an advantage over his center back rivals but organization appears to be a leading concern after Belgium's movement wreaked such havoc in Cleveland.
And everyone in the US camp acknowledges that Germany is well-equipped to inflict even more damage at RFK.
“At times I think we were a little bit spread out in the game,” said Besler. “And it all starts with us in the back – defensively, obviously it starts with us, but even with the ball, too. If we can control the tempo from the back, I think we're going to be in really good shape.”