The 2014 FIFA World Cup, the world’s largest sports tournament next to the Olympics, is less than a month away.
United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann said he couldn’t be happier to represent the US against a very difficult group, featuring world-class squads Germany and Portugal. The wily German expressed clear enthusiasm on Monday, discussing the fresh release of the US national team’s preliminary 30-man roster.
“With naming the 30-man roster we enter another big step toward the World Cup. It’s exciting because we can get to work and we can see the players now, day-in and day-out, training and scrimmaging and doing a lot of work and getting a much more detailed picture from every one of them over the next three weeks,’’ Klinsmann told media during a phone interview.
“Obviously, it’s getting more and more exciting. The clock is ticking and that is good on our end because we can make decisions and move forward. It’s been quite a process over the last two-and-a-half or three years leading the team toward the World Cup in Brazil and a lot of players were a part of that process.’’
Klinsmann will refine the squad to 23 players in the weeks leading up to the early June trip to Brazil. The national team practices at Stanford University, beginning on May 14.
While at every position, certain footballers will fight for their World Cup lives, it appears that the forward position is a main point of emphasis, since scoring becomes a necessity against high-octane European sides.
Klinsmann surprisingly omitted a striker — Eddie Johnson — that could serve as a legitimate factor in international contests.
“I always recognize Eddie’s value and strengths overall, not only by scoring very important goals for us, getting us to Brazil, but also he is a player that can make a difference within seconds of being on the field, if it’s scoring a goal or making an assist,’’ Klinsmann said.
The D.C. United man has tallied 19 goals in 63 games for the US.
“You go through every one of those players and you evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and what they bring to the table,’’ Klinsmann said. “I just felt like that’s the way I want to build that puzzle for the 23-man roster. I see those players competing a little bit ahead of the curve.’’
Included in the group that made the squad, Earthquakes man Chris Wondolowski and Terrence Boyd of Austrian club Rapid Vienna will battle each other to dodge final cuts. Both could fortify the US attack with spark off the sideline, doing their best to combat attackers like Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
One forward stands out above the rest, though, considering recent form.
Clint Dempsey, America’s captain and a seven-year Premier League veteran, has burst onto the MLS scene playing for Seattle Sounders F.C. He’s scored eight goals and notched three assists in nine regular season contests. Seattle has climbed to the top of the Western Conference standings, largely thanks to Dempsey.
Looking ahead to the World Cup, the Furman alum realizes individual production, for anybody, can significantly impact the way a lineup functions.
“You want to do well,’’ he said. “You want to be playing a good round of form. You want to be confident. You want to get in a rhythm. And I’ve done that… We’ll will be doing a lot of work training, simulating games and trying to figure out what that best 11 is going to be (at Stanford).’’
Dempsey, above all else, has slowly evolved into the player he is today. He attributes his growth to a professional start in New England, as the Revolution’s eighth overall pick in the 2004 SuperDraft. Capturing 2004 MLS Rookie of the Year honors, not to mention two MLS Cup births, he reached hero status under manager Steve Nicol and assistant coach Paul Mariner.
Consequently, Dempsey drew interest from England in 2006, his final destination being Fulham F.C. The Cottagers offered $4 million for Dempsey, the largest sum ever for an MLS player at the time.
“It feels good (to be back in New England),’’ the 31-year-old said following the Sounders-Revs matchup on Sunday night. “It’s always good to be back where it started for my professional career. I owe a lot to this organization. Especially Stevie Nicol and Paul Mariner being able to help develop my game here which allowed me to break into the national team, which allowed me to get overseas and which also allowed me to play in World Cups.’’
His spell at Gillette Stadium displayed an ambitious youngster that had a great deal of potential, much like the Revs’ 19-year-old Diego Fagundez, who led the team in goal scoring last season.
Fagundez tallied a brace against Sounders F.C. on Sunday, flaunting his boundless ability noticed in a select few across the US. The ex-Fulham striker believes the Revs’ youth-based ideal has carried over from his stint with the franchise.
“It’s good, they have young talent coming up,’’ Dempsey said. “You need to find a good mix on your team. That’s something the Revs have always done a good job of, giving young players the opportunity to try to develop and improve and I think that’s what allowed me to get to where I am today.’’
It’s “today’’ that matters most for fans of American soccer. Dempsey’s performance may be the difference between group-stage elimination and a Cinderella run for the Stars and Stripes.
After all, United States’ target forward Jozy Altidore hasn’t lived up to expectations at Sunderland, watching games from the sideline and failing to bury goals as a starter. Altidore has totaled only two goals in 38 competitions.
Dempsey can compensate for Altidore’s struggles. The experienced vet brings offensive promise to the table, capable of filling multiple positions in the midfield, and he can execute a striker’s touch if needed. He’s invaluable to Team USA, which is evident through his closeness to an elite group of Americans who’ve scored in three World Cups.
Nevertheless, Dempsey wants his home country to succeed, rather than see his name go down in history.
“It’s more important the team does well,’’ he said. “For me, it’s when I was a kid that’s what I dreamed about, to be able to play in the World Cup. Having the opportunity to have played in two (World Cups) and to have scored in two and with the chance of maybe playing in a third, that’s pretty special.’’