STANFORD, Calif. – Four years ago, Brad Davis had a prime view of what it looks like when your World Cup dreams are given the pink slip.
And it didn’t look good.
Davis’ longtime Houston Dynamo teammate Brian Ching was one of the final cuts from Bob Bradley’s World Cup squad as camp wrapped up in Princeton, N.J. Ching had been an integral part of the 2010 World Cup qualifying cycle, but was a last-minute omission as Bradley opted for Edson Buddle as a target man.
In a matter of days, all of Ching’s contributions in getting the US to South Africa were relegated to a quiet conversation in a Connecticut hotel room, a handshake and a plane ticket back to Houston. Bradley instead went with the hot hand in Buddle, who hadn’t been capped in seven years but had started the 2010 MLS season lights out for the LA Galaxy with nine goals through six games.
“When [Ching] came back, we really didn’t talk about it a whole lot,” Davis told reporters on Wednesday, the first day of US national team camp. “We all respected him enough and how much he worked for it. It’s just one of those things where, once you do what you can do, it’s out of your hands.”
Now it’s Davis’ turn to tempt fate. Jurgen Klinsmann must make seven cuts to his 30-man squad here in Northern California before submitting his final 23-man roster to FIFA by June 2. And the man with the meanest left foot in MLS is on the short list of players whose places in Brazil are in question.
Klinsmann spoke at length on Wednesday about the work the USMNT needs to do here – most headline-grabbing the claim that his players had to play “catch up” with their opponents in Brazil – but the more intriguing suggestion was that there are “50-50” battles all over the roster. That is, in many cases, his choices will come down to one player over the other.
“We have 50-50 cases all over the place going on,” he said in a press conference. “So the best thing for us coaches is to look at them first hand, see them in training, see where they are right now, and then make the decision three weeks down the road.”
Davis is squarely in that boat. Will he beat out teen wunderkind Julian Green as a left-sided specialist? Will Terrence Boyd’s skills as a hold-up forward give him the edge over opportunistic sniper Chris Wondolowski?
Are Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona fighting for a midfielder spot? And perhaps most intriguingly, who will win out a seemingly three-way battle for right back: Timmy Chandler, Brad Evans or DeAndre Yedlin?
Welcome to “Survivor: Silicon Valley.”
“At all times, someone is trying to take your spot,” acknowledged Davis. “At all times, someone’s getting the short end of the stick, and this is another thing where seven guys are going home and everybody knows that and everybody knows what’s on the line.
“So I know it’s going to be competitive, but for me, I’m not thinking about going home.”
Neither is anyone taking the field at Stanford University. Klinsmann’s comments on Wednesday also repeatedly referred to “building a foundation” and getting into rhythm with the rest of the World Cup field. But make no mistake: The fierce competition is the biggest and most intriguing story line in USMNT camp.
Eight years ago, when Klinsmann was the coach of the German national team, he made a similar decision to name 30 players to his pre-World Cup camp. And as he proved in the run-up, he’s not afraid to make cutthroat decisions at the last minute.
Back then, it was moving aside the older generation of Christian Wörns, Fabian Ernst and Frank Baumann in the preceding months. Then he named Jens Lehmann his starting 'keeper over sacred cow Oliver Kahn right before the tournament started.
This time, with the USMNT, he’ll have to chop seven names off what DaMarcus Beasley – hoping to make his record-tying fourth World Cup – deems “the deepest national team that we’ve had.”
And that’s what makes his assertion that the team needs to play catch-up so fascinating. According to Klinsmann, the issue is that most of the MLS-dominated roster is not in the late-season form of players in Europe and South America.
But is that really what he means? Or is he also sending a subtle message to his players, José Mourinho-style, that they’ll need to bust their rears to avoid his chopping block?
Klinsmann likely isn’t worried about his “spine,” as he called the nucleus of the team back in February. But beyond that, no one is safe, according to Beasley. And that means that everyone – from Davis all the way up to US legend Landon Donovan – is going to have to prove he belongs.
“We have a great group of guys,” Beasley told reporters on Wednesday. “But at the same time, on the field, we’re still friends but we’re competing for a spot on the team. No one is guaranteed a spot, and everyone is working for the same goal and that’s to make the World Cup team and have a good showing in the World Cup.”
Game on, campers.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.