What a difference four years makes.
Looking ahead to Saturday night’s US national team friendly against South Korea (5 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMas) it’s hard to draw a greater contrast than to go back four years to the first game on the calendar the last time the USMNT began a World Cup year.
While the game between the US and Honduras was played in the same venue (then known as the Home Depot Center, now known as StubHub Center), that’s where the similarities pretty much end. For starters, on Saturday night, the seats will be filled.
There is a buzz about the work Jurgen Klinsmann did in 2013, leading the USMNT to their first Gold Cup title since 2007 and running away with the CONCACAF Hexagonal. What’s more, a lot of the players who led the team to those accomplishments are on the roster for Saturday night’s match.
You’re not just looking at fringe guys who are trying to win a spot on the final World Cup roster. In Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, you’re looking at the center-back pairing that stood together through most of qualifying. In Brad Evans, you’re looking at the most often-used right back. Graham Zusi has been a fixture. Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis and Mix Diskerud (at right) have all played important roles, sometimes as starters, other times off the bench, in the recent past.
And that’s not even getting into Landon Donovan, who walked away from the game, then back into the team. Simply put, you are looking at a lot of players who expect to start, or at least feature, in Brazil.
In 2010, when the US went through their January paces, about the only player on the roster you figured would play a key role in South Africa was Benny Feilhaber, who was then playing for Aarhus in Denmark, and on winter break.
Sure, you knew there was a chance Jonathan Bornstein or Heath Pearce would play their way on to the roster, and you probably figured, with Charlie Davies injured badly in a car accident, there was something of a battle going on between players like Conor Casey, Jeff Cunningham and Robbie Findley, to win a spot in South Africa. But it was just bits and pieces.
Following a year like 2009, during which the US played so many games between the Hex and the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, the 2010 January camp felt like little more than a chance to get a handful of guys running and playing. A number of national players who’d spent the 2009 season in MLS had left for European teams. Ricardo Clark had just left Houston to play for Eintracht Frankfurt. Stuart Holden left the Dynamo for Bolton Wanderers. Donovan left the Galaxy in January to go on loan with Everton.
But this weekend, the game will feel much different. Beyond the sheer number of MLS players who will feature in this game (the only non-MLSer is Diskerud), when you take into account what’s going on with many of the US players who are playing – or were playing up until recently – in Europe, US vs. South Korea takes on some meaning.
Jermaine Jones has just left Schalke in Germany for Besiktas in Turkey. Michael Bradley just left Roma for Toronto, and will continue to train with Toronto FC instead of reporting to camp for this friendly. Clint Dempsey, who moved to Seattle last summer, is back trying to get games for Fulham in the English Premier League.
Aside from the goalkeeping tandem of Tim Howard at Everton and Brad Guzan at Aston Villa, and players like Sacha Kljestan at Anderlecht, Alejandro Bedoya at Nantes, Terrence Boyd at Rapid Vienna and Aron Jóhannsson at AZ Alkmaar, it’s been a tumultuous year for Yanks abroad.
Those situations add even more intrigue to the game vs. Korea. For you can’t help but get the feeling that Klinsmann and staff are going to have some really hard roster decisions to make if players don’t improve their club situations. The door seems ajar for many.
Go back to that game vs. Honduras four years ago and try to remember the way you felt going into that game? Try to remember. Try. Guessing it’s not easy to remember much.
So, we get a decent, somewhat meaningful game to watch on Saturday afternoon. We will probably see first caps for players like MLS MVP Mike Magee and All-Star rookie DeAndre Yedlin. And we will get a chance to see a lot of likely World Cup starters.