The United States' road to the Russia World Cup will have twists and turns
There's a line in "Women with Men," a novel by Richard Ford, where one of the characters, caught up in a relationship impasse, thinks, "Two people don't see the same landscape."
It's a simple phrase, and in the fevered anticipation and equally fevered post mortem of a World Cup campaign, it's one that has popped into my head more than once. What does the United States soccer landscape look like right now, and what can a view of it in 2014 tell us about what it might look like in four years?
The glib answer, though perhaps also the telling one, is "depends on how you look at it." Reading the trends of national team selection is always an activity fraught with peril because of the context it takes place in. Staggered league schedules (and crucially, given its renewed influence on national team lineups, MLS not participating in FIFA dates), European-based players, stages of the cycle and so on mean that not only do we not necessarily see the same landscape as coach Jurgen Klinsmann, but we're always having our vantage point moved to different landscapes with different players to make our assessment. The coach shares glimpses of his view, while the big picture never reveals itself consistently.
For example, if the only view of the national team you had seen this year before the World Cup had been the lackluster defeat to Ukraine in Cyprus in March, you would have thought John Brooks was a positional disaster waiting to happen and Jozy Altidore a woefully out-of-form blunt instrument. The seven MLS players who ended up starting against Germany in Brazil would have been nowhere to be seen.
Had you instead shown up a month later to see the U.S. take on Mexico, you would have seen Chris Wondolowski making his case for inclusion in the final squad with a well-taken poacher's goal, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez as the presumptive first-choice center backs and the debut of what looked very much like a diamond formation with Kyle Beckerman slotted in at the base of midfield. You would also have seen a guest appearance by a young 18-year-old from Bayern Munich, Landon Donovan appearing to adjust to life as a possible super sub and no sign of DeAndre Yedlin off the bench.
But what the balanced picture of all these little cubist angles would be when it came to envisioning the final squad was anybody's guess. Certainly you could look back with the benefit of hindsight and see a plan beginning to cohere, but you could also see just as many false tells as the friendlies unfolded.
Having completed one World Cup cycle, might we at least have something like a blueprint against which to read Klinsmann squads in the new cycle? In broad terms we can say that the coach's faith in youth has been more than lip service and that his selection of said youth is driven by the immediate contingencies of tournament play rather than any supposed wide-angle ideal of gaining experience.
The latter concern was very present in debates in the lead-up to Brazil, particularly after Klinsmann signed his contract extension and when the final 23-man squad was announced. Reading some commentary from media and fans, the concern was less with how the likes of Brooks, Yedlin and 18-year-old Julian Green might perform and more about speculation regarding Klinsmann's intentions in bringing them at all.
The most pessimistic accounts saw him as having written off the group of death, which also featured Ghana, Portugal and Germany, and having firmly shifted his tenured gaze to 2018, a claim that, to those who understand Klinsmann the competitor, seems patently absurd but was arguably as valid a position as any amid the open-ended speculation surrounding his first World Cup cycle.
So now, as a new cycle begins, we're seeing another young squad selected to face the Czech Republic. Without going into the individual details of college kids, untested players and fringe youngsters stepping up, can we at least trace a trajectory for them through this cycle and on to Russia? Even in an ideal world of stable career development arcs, the answer is "not really." A similar exercise following the first friendly after the 2010 World Cup might have led you to project Juan Agudelo scoring a winner against Belgium in this year's round of 16.
It's also worth noting that it's not just the players who change in Klinsmann's landscape; it's the features of the landscape itself. Following the World Cup and again this week, Klinsmann was emphasizing the need for players' schedules to more closely mirror the rhythms of the best of their international peers, starting with MLS releasing them for FIFA dates. That kind of adjustment would require the league to adjust the length and start time of its season -- so do that, shrugs Klinsmann. He doesn't just want the players to get better; he wants the system that produces them and shapes their working lives to be more geared toward international success.
Nor does Klinsmann believe in an off-the-peg approach to youth development that can automatically be mapped over from the 2014 to 2018 cycles. When we spoke in April, I asked him about the lessons of working with and motivating the young German squad in 2006 and what he had learned that he was now applying in the U.S.
Klinsmann surprised me a little by insisting on the degree of difference in players from then and now, not just with the context of different sporting cultures and expectations but through the distractions of technology, changed ideas of privacy and where the players are drawing influences from now.
He seemed to suggest this was a new breed of player, and he was happy to take on the challenge of finding new ways to address those players in ways they understood -- more interactive and less autocratic. (Those comments assumed a certain irony just weeks later with the Twitter incident involving Klinsmann's son following the omission of Donovan from the World Cup squad.)
In that bigger picture, Klinsmann's technical development remit and indeed his instincts and taste for constant evolution, one thing we can say about his vision for this team in 2018 is that he's happy for it to be flexible and informed by progress. You won't be alone if you can't reconcile the squad for this game and World Cup 2018 in the same landscape.
We're setting off in the general direction of Russia, but the travelers will change greatly and perhaps be changed themselves along the way.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.