HOUSTON – Most of the players in the U.S. squad to face Canada Tuesday night earned their places on their roster through their domestic excellence. They clawed and scraped their way through the challenges presented and thrived under exacting conditions to earn this chance to carve out a role in the final round in World Cup qualifying.
All of their experiences and all of their exploits will matter little when this match commences. As so many players before them have discovered and a few of them have already discerned through their past involvement in the program, the international level presents an entirely different task.
Canada – especially in this weakened state with an interim coach in place and a stern focus on the future with this youthful squad – truthfully does not measure up on that front. Yet the Canadians provide the final metric for these players after a lengthy January training camp. This is the last chance for these players to show they merit an opportunity with the full team ahead of the considerably more difficult trip to Honduras next week.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann included several uncapped players in his squad with one eye toward this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, but his primary objective right now involves buttressing his top group at its weakest points ahead of the 10-game gauntlet ahead this year.
Klinsmann's 25-man squad – now down to 23 with the withdrawals of Steven Beitashour and Edson Buddle through injury – reflects his views on these inadequacies and underscores his desire to review established options.
Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez found themselves included to assess their status on the flimsy central defensive depth chart. Alejandro Bedoya, who is out of contract after showing well in his brief stint for Swedish side Helsingborg, Brad Davis and Benny Feilhaber earned recalls to press their claims to provide something different or something necessary as nominal wide players. Chris Wondolowski received perhaps a final chance to transfer his predatory instincts from MLS to this stage in a bid to diversify the options in the final third.
All of the U.S. players – including regular selections Kyle Beckerman, Eddie Johnson and Graham Zusi – enter this match with something to prove. Their accomplishments in MLS or their previous achievements with the national team earned them this chance, for the most part. Now they must take it firmly to push their case for inclusion at the higher level.
Although Klinsmann's usual squad appears fairly settled in certain spots and well-stocked in others, these hopefuls can work their way into the mix. Few players in the current American squad merit a guaranteed place. Many of the others can float between the starting XI, the bench and the small group of players omitted entirely from the matchday group.
The onus falls on this MLS contingent to offer a certain trait or two to the cause to improve their claims for a place in the group. This date against Canada isn't necessarily a means to press the case for a starting berth against Honduras, though Zusi may reasonably set his sights on that particular objective. Instead of moving toward such lofty goals, these players must focus on showing one or two qualities against lesser opposition in order to book their place on the plane.
Maybe Besler can display his astute positioning or Gonzalez can highlight his ample physical presence. Perhaps Bedoya can offer genuine width even though he likes to cut inside, Davis can provide inviting crosses and tempting set pieces with that magical left foot or Feilhaber can provide a telling pass or two as he deftly retains possession.
Wondolowski could possibly mine the meager space allotted at the standard required to score at the international level. And other players in the squad could lean on their own traits – Juan Agudelo's ability to run behind the line or Joshua Gatt's speed, for instance – to bolster their own places in the pecking order.
While Klinsmann and his current players will undoubtedly expect to secure a result after a similarly makeshift squad from Denmark tossed these Canadians aside 4-0 on Saturday in Tucson, Ariz., they will not base the final verdict on the scoreboard. The efficacy of this particular match hinges on individuals and their place in the overall setup instead of their work as a collective unit on the night.
Only a handful of them will advance through this particular gauntlet to book a place in the squad or keep their names in the mix for future qualifiers. The inevitable culling process serves as ample incentive to transfer that domestic excellence and validate all of the hard work submitted to reach this point. The rewards on offer, after all, are more than worth the struggle necessary to achieve them.