The thought of including some promising or talented MLS player in the U.S. national team mix often sets hearts aflutter at the moment said player strings together a decent or torrid stretch of domestic form.
In most instances, those clarion calls for deserved recognition often teeter on the border between improbable and inadvisable.
It isn't that the MLS players in question aren't talented or don't merit consideration. In many cases, they certainly possess some of the necessary characteristics to merit a spot in the squad. The past decade and a half is littered with MLS players who have proven able to step in and play a role at the international level. A select few even established themselves as fixtures in the side. Most of the time, however, the championed candidates just don't pull together enough of the fundamental underpinnings required to make the transition from domestic standout to international regular.
This concept stretches all the way back to the early days of MLS, but it has assumed a greater significance during the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Although the final returns for the expected 29-man camp for the upcoming slate of three friendlies and the first two qualifiers on the road to the 2014 FIFA World Cup aren't in yet, the initial 16-man party suggests Klinsmann has reached a conclusion similar to his predecessors: he wants foreign-based players to form the core of his team.
Unfortunately for MLS hopefuls, Klinsmann may expand his core to a point that leaves more of them on the outside of the U.S. lineup at the start of World Cup qualifying than at any other juncture since the league started back in 1996.
At this point, only three MLS players are assured of spots in Klinsmann's camp. A fortuitous bye week permitted Klinsmann to name Real Salt Lake duo Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando in his first group of selections and the usual scheduling headaches prohibited other domestic callups until this weekend concludes. Los Angeles midfielder Landon Donovan essentially confirmed he will join the group after the weekend's fixtures when queried by reporters at the Galaxy's White House visit on Monday.
Donovan's inclusion leaves a maximum of 12 remaining spots for the camp poised to convene this week in Orlando. Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar) and Oguchi Onyewu (Sporting Lisbon) will take two more places, and Terrence Boyd (Borussia Dortmund reserves) indicated on Twitter that he has also received a callup for the camp. Other foreign-based players such as Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna), Clarence Goodson (Brøndby IF) and Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjælland) probably warrant selection after they finish up their club campaigns this week, though Gomez's status, as always, is a bit tenuous.
Even if Klinsmann uses the remaining six slots exclusively on MLS stars such as Juan Agudelo (New York), Geoff Cameron (Houston), Brek Shea (FC Dallas) and Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), he would only name a total of nine MLS players in his initial 29-man pool. With Rimando likely to return to RSL once the group is cut to 23 (keeping a third goalkeeper isn't worth the harm to Jason Kreis' side, right?), the total number of MLS players in the mix for a spot on the squad falls to eight.
The remaining eight players (again, a high number assuming no other foreign-based callups) would theoretically project into this particular squad in the following manner:
- One presumably iron-clad starter who hasn't featured in the U.S. squad in a while for one reason or another and who hasn't showed his best form domestically this season after a winter loan spell with Everton. (Donovan)
- One Klinsmann favorite who features in the most congested position on the camp roster and who may fall victim to a numbers game when the final squad is decided. (Beckerman)
- One promising young talent who benefits from playing in a position with modest natural depth and who has struggled with both form and injury this season. (Shea)
- As many as five other players who may or may not make the final squad if named depending on fitness and positional need. (Agudelo [just returning after injury], Cameron and Wondolowski if named to the camp roster plus any other potential option on the radar including, but not limited to, the likes of Edson Buddle [horrifically out of form], Kenny Cooper [in great form, but maybe not a great fit for Klinsmann's system], Benny Feilhaber [apparently not a Klinsmann favorite] and Heath Pearce [experienced left back option who only plays left back occasionally for Chivas USA]).
Unless a couple of those hopefuls force Klinsmann's hand by impressing during the training camp, the final MLS contingent will comprise the smallest delegation ever for the first World Cup qualifier of the cycle. This particular snapshot isn't a perfect one (circumstances always matter), but it does offer at least some anecdotal evidence of how the direct MLS influence over the U.S. national team has evolved over the years.
The four previous cycles reveal two distinct patterns: (1) every coach has relied upon a group of no fewer than four MLS players in his initial World Cup qualifying starting XI; and (2) that reliance has decreased over the years for a variety of reasons too complicated and too numerous to capture in a sentence or two.
1998 World Cup
Nov. 3, 1996 – U.S. 2, Guatemala 0 (RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C.)
MLS: Agoos, Harkes, Jones, Lalas, Moore, Ramos, Wynalda – (subs) Burns, McBride, Preki
Overseas: Dooley, Keller, Reyna, Stewart – none
* note – the influx of U.S. national team regulars prior to the start of the league likely increased this number artificially in comparison to subsequent cycles
July 16, 2000 – U.S. 1, Guatemala 1 (Mazatenango, Guatemala)
MLS: Armas, Fraser, Jones, Pope, Razov – Ramos, Vanney
Overseas: Keller, Lewis, Regis, Reyna, Sanneh, Stewart – Hejduk
June 13, 2004 – U.S. 3, Grenada 0 (Crew Stadium, Columbus, OH)
MLS: Armas, Beasley, Donovan, Pope – none
Overseas: Bocanegra, Casey, Cherundolo, Keller, McBride, Reyna, Vanney – Lewis, Kirovski, Stewart
* note – Beasley transferred to PSV Eindhoven that summer
June 15, 2008 – U.S. 8, Barbados 0 (Home Depot Center, Carson, CA)
MLS: Ching, Donovan, Guzan, Mastroeni – none
Overseas: Beasley, Bocanegra, Bradley, Cherundolo, Dempsey, Onyewu, Pearce – Adu, Johnson, Lewis
* note – Guzan transferred to Aston Villa that summer; Lewis transferred to Los Angeles that summer
The limited data included above and the situation facing the MLS hopefuls under Klinsmann now indicates MLS exerts less influence over the U.S. national team when it counts than it once did. Such a stark reality won't stop those entreaties from MLS fans championing in form players. Nor should it. Those players deserve a mention in the conversation. It seems, however, that the dialogue increasingly turns in a different direction before they can truly influence it.
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