CLEVELAND – The US men’s national team is about to kick off an important five-game stretch when they face off against Belgium on Wednesday night (8 pm ET, ESPN, live chat on MLSsoccer.com), and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is looking forward to finally putting his 29-player puzzle together.
“Facing Belgium at this stage allows us to get a couple answers in terms of where the players are at right now,” Klinsmann explained in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday afternoon. "We still have the challenge in the next couple of days to get everybody on the same page because they come from different schedules."
The task is made even more complicated by the fact that not every player in Klinsmann's roster has joined the team yet – Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo are still with Tijuana, who are in Brazil for their Copa Libertadores quarterfinal clash with Atlético Mineiro.
Over in Europe, midfield lynchpin Michael Bradley is on his way back from Italy after a disappointing loss in Sunday’s Coppa Italia final and will join the team in Washington for the June 2 game vs. Germany, while Hoffenheim’s Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson are in a similar situation after securing survival in the Bundesliga on Monday.
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Nonetheless, Klinsmann is confident he can start to get the answers he needs to make the necessary roster decisions ahead of the USMNT’s three-game World Cup qualifying stretch that runs June 7-18.
“We have a very, very good group together, we feel confident that we’ll show the people an exciting match, and give the players the opportunity to prove to us certain things,” the German coach said of the upcoming Belgium match.
One man who definitely has something to prove to Klinsmann is Anderlecht midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who the coach says will be getting a close look as he starts in central midfield alongside Jermaine Jones against his adopted country.
“There’s a reason Sacha is here – he won the Belgian title again,” Klinsmann stated. “He has had to swallow a couple of pills over the last two years. He’s here because not getting as many [USMNT] games as he’s hoped to get, but deserves to be part of this strong group.
“It’s a big compliment to him for how he performed all year for Anderlecht and how he comes in here and shows his qualities to the entire group.”
Klinsmann has typically used the two-time Belgian title winner in wide positions – when he’s used Kljestan at all – and the player is excited to finally prove his worth in the middle of the park.
“I’ll play whatever position is asked of me, but I’m also excited to play in the center of midfield,” Kljestan said. “I’m fortunate that Michael’s not here for the game, so now I get a chance to play in the center. And if it so happens that Michael or Jermaine pick up a suspension during qualifying, I want to step in and prove to the coaches that I’m able to do a job and help the team in the middle of midfield as well.”
And while Kljestan has affirmed his place in the squad largely on the back of his continued success with Anderlecht, Klinsmann must also deal with the task of integrating players who may not have had as successful club seasons, are coming back from injury, or in the case of US-based players, who have just started their club seasons.
“It’s more a mental challenge than a physical one," the former German international explained. "Getting on them on the same page here, wherever they come from, it’s not easy sometimes, it’s really a challenge for them. Some deal better with it, some of them may be a little shaky.
“It’s a puzzle that we’re always working on.” he added. “It’s challenging, but it’s also fascinating because I have the approach that whenver a player is not 100 percent there for whatever reason, then it’s an opportunity for the next guy.”
And with the five players yet to join the squad, three goalkeepers currently with their MLS teams and another three field players having pulled out through injury, the opportunities Klinsmann refers to will certainly be there against Belgium. Now, it's up to the players to show him they belong in his puzzle.