Klinsmann Confronts the Club vs Country Issue

The starting XI for the United States against Mexico on Sep 10, 2013. Credit: John Todd - ISIPhotos.com

By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 3, 2012) US Soccer Players – The United States National Team has qualified for the World Cup, but there’s still ample work ahead and thus no compromises or experiments with the composition of the roster or the competitive approach to their final two CONCACAF Hexagonal matches this month.

That’s been Jurgen Klinsmann’s message all along, and he sticks to it tenaciously. He plans to call in his first-choice players for next week’s meeting with Jamaica at Sporting Park in Kansas City, and then take them to Panama for the final qualifier of the cycle on Oct 15, with no regard to playoff races in MLS or clogged European club schedules. He needs time with his charges, and the time around meaningful matches against motivated opposition is probably the most useful.

He reiterated his intentions in a press conference at Rio Tinto Stadium just before Tuesday night’s US Open Cup final between Real Salt Lake and DC United in Sandy, Utah.

“It is absolutely no issue for us,” Klinsmann told reporters. “We see the busy schedule MLS is going through, but it makes no difference. This is World Cup qualifying. We want to end it on a very high note. We’re going to call in the guys we believe in. We are not looking at the MLS schedule. We have to get our own job done.”

The problem for Klinsmann – and it’s one that has bedeviled international managers all over the world for years – is that there are inherent limits on his ability to control this situation. Especially now that, like it or not, his team’s early booking for Brazil has removed a measure of immediacy in the eyes of outsiders.

Injuries prevent or endanger the availability of Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, Clarence Goodson, and Fabian Johnson, and a few other issues elsewhere could cut down Klinsmann’s options even further. In Utah, Klinsmann specifically cited Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, key cogs in his lineup who have battled nagging injury concerns of late, as two players who would report to camp in KC promptly after their club matches this weekend.

In Jones’ case, reports of his situation with Schalke 04’s early-season Bundesliga struggles may mean that he’s presently in greater demand on this side of the Atlantic. For Dempsey, an October call-up is more problematic.

A hamstring problem has pestered him since his midsummer move to the Seattle Sounders, something he suggests may be a byproduct of his relentless travel and activity for club and country. After missing Seattle’s last two games, Dempsey is hoping to return to action against Colorado this weekend. Klinsmann made clear that if his captain takes the field in Sounders colors on Saturday, availability shouldn’t be an issue for the US next week.

“I have spoken to [Sounders coach] Sigi [Schmid] a couple of times, and they expect him back on the weekend, and therefore we expect him back in camp on Sunday,” Klinsmann said on Tuesday.

Schmid and Klinsmann are old friends and hopefully able to agree on what kind of demands can and should be placed on Dempsey’s body at the moment. Relationships between national-team coaches and their club counterparts are often not quite so cordial, as their respective interests can inevitably come into conflict – particularly at moments like this. FIFA mandates that clubs release their players – when healthy – to national-team duty during official fixture windows. In reality, it’s not quite so cut-and-dried.

The likes of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger and former Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson are infamously crafty in this regard, their players routinely bowing out of international call-ups due to strains, knocks and niggles that mysteriously heal just in time for them to contribute for their club teams again shortly. In other cases, those whose employers are of larger stature than their homelands – Sounders and Grenada midfielder Shalrie Joseph comes to mind – tend to choose their availability accordingly.

To date, these situations have been blessedly rare for the US, thanks in part to MLS’s generally supportive outlook towards the team and assiduous communication between US Soccer and overseas clubs. Still, as Yanks play on bigger and bigger stages abroad, and as the stakes rise in MLS competition, there will surely be more instances where coaches and general managers think twice about Klinsmann’s requests. In those moments, there’s only so much he can do about it.

How much could Seattle – or, say, San Jose, where Goodson and company are mounting a late, desperate playoff push, or even DaMarcus Beasley’s Mexican club Puebla, who have granted him plenty of time away with the US over the past year or two – really be blamed for handling call-ups a bit more cautiously if they fear for the effects of compressed mileage on their players’ legs? Just how much additional meaning can Klinsmann inject into games that the whole world knows are not truly “must-win” for his team? It sounds like a staunch test, even for his powerful skills of persuasion.

Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at: cboehm@thesoccerwire.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.

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