MIAMI – After the first practice wrapped up on Tuesday, after he ran multiple laps around the soggy field and stretched his legs and dabbed sweat off his face with a cotton towel, Jurgen Klinsmann talked about how tricky it is to be the US national team head coach.
The challenge, he said, is to get his players on the same page. He has to deal with their club coaches all over Europe, and also in Mexico and with MLS teams here in the United States. It’s a lot of networking, Klinnsman explained. A lot of phone calls, a lot of organizational stuff.
“But once you have the players in, you know, and you get on the field here and you can work with them, then it’s a real blast,” he added.
Getting them on the field may be the trickiest part of all. As camp opened here in advance of Friday’s World Cup qualifier in Antigua (7 pm ET, beIN Sport, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), only 11 players dressed for the initial morning session, held on a sloppy pitch here at Florida International University, located near the Everglades on the west side of town.
Among the players who stayed back at the team hotel: Clint Dempsey, Brek Shea, Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra. Also absent: Landon Donovan, who injured his left knee on Saturday in a game with the LA Galaxy.
“We are very, very positive on Landon,” Klinsmann insisted after practice. As he spoke, he twisted his towel into a tight knot. “He’s [having an MRI on the knee] just to be 1,000 percent sure. It’s just more or less a safety issue. From this afternoon on, when we’ll have a gym session at the hotel, he’ll be ready to go full steam.”
“There’s no concerns,” Klinsmann added, chuckling a bit, still twisting his towel. “I mean, [a negative diagnosis] would surprise us. Hopefully not.”
Not long after that expression of optimism, US Soccer announced that Donovan’s knee was not OK, and that he is scratched from both the Antigua and Barbuda game and the subsequent game against Guatemala, to be held on Oct. 16 in Kansas City. Shea was also scratched for both games, with an abdominal strain. Klinsmann, in the announcement, revealed no plans to bring in replacements for either injured player.
Not even Jozy Altidore, the forward who was most conspicuous in his absence from camp. In a conference call on Monday, Klinsmann emphasized that he’d left Altidore – currently leading the Dutch league in scoring – off the roster very intentionally. While acknowledging Altidore’s impressive run for AZ Alkmaar, Klinsmann asserted that Altidore’s results with the national team have not been nearly as stellar, and nowhere near what is expected of him. It was a charge Klinsmann repeated on the practice field.
“It’s just a consequence of what we saw the last couple of times,” the coach said, referring to the last two games Altidore played with the USMNT, both against Jamaica. “Now it’s up to him to show a positive response, which we are sure he will show.”
Altidore, he added, should look for inspiration to one of the few players who did make it to the opening practice, Seattle Sounders striker Eddie Johnson. Once a mainstay with the national team, Johnson had just completed his first practice with the men’s team in more than two years.
“If you give everything you have, and you are very good in what you are doing in your club team, and you bring in certain qualities that Eddie already proved so many times in the past, then there might be an opportunity again.” Klinsmann said.
“I think it’s a message, a message to everybody,” he concluded. “That the door is always open. As I said yesterday in the conference call, the door remains open for Jozy.”
The most reassuring presence at practice was Michael Bradley, fully recovered from a muscle strain that had sidelined him for a month, and fresh off scoring his first goal for Italian side Roma. Also present at practice was the 30-year-old Alan Gordon of the San Jose Earthquakes. Not yet capped for the national team, and attending only his second camp ever, Gordon was asked if it was unusual to have so few players present for a practice session.
“Well,” he replied, “I don’t know any different.”
Gordon, Bradley and the nine others worked through a series of passing drills before dividing into sides for a short-field scrimmage. Emphasis was placed on finishing, on creating chances. Klinsman said he wants to put Antigua and Barbuda under pressure from the first second on, and wants to keep the tempo high throughout the game.
Speed wasn’t easy to achieve on Tuesday, though. The sloppy pitch at FIU failed to drain after a tropical shower the night before. A golf cart carrying supplies to the sideline left deep brown tracks across midfield. Humidity and intense heat that climbed into the 90s left players soaked with sweat by the final whistle.
After jogging his laps, and before making his way to the bus with the team, Klinsmann downplayed any problems with the low player turnout at the first session. Players come in to camp off different schedules, he explained. Some played on Friday. Some on Saturday. And then some on Sunday. Some have little injuries, bruises perhaps, and so they were given the first day off.
“From this afternoon on, we’re all on the same page,” said Klinsmann.
Robert Andrew Powell is the author of This Love Is Not for Cowards: Salvation and Soccer in Ciudad Juárez.