The World Cup is soccer's greatest tournament but also its most heartbreaking. Even with a month to go before the big kickoff in Brazil, United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has had to play psychologist in the face of raw human emotions.
One of the most difficult tasks for any World Cup coach is paring down his squad and delivering the devastating news to a crop of hopeful players that their only involvement in the tournament will be watching from home on television. Step one of that process was finalized on Monday when Klinsmann announced his preliminary roster of 30 players, after having spent much of the weekend telephoning and consoling those who just missed out.
"Making those phone calls was unpleasant," Klinsmann said in a conference call on Monday afternoon. "It gives them a message they don't want to hear and you know it hurts the players.
"Every call you make is a tough one. It is a personal one on their whole being and their career because you are missing out on the biggest tournament you can play."
Perhaps the most surprising omission from the squad was forward Eddie Johnson, who scored several key goals during the qualification process but has struggled since joining D.C. United and last week publicly criticized his club teammates. Others to miss out who may have fancied their chances include defenders Tim Ream, Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco and midfielders Brek Shea and Sacha Klejstan.
The chosen 30 will meet up at Stanford University on Wednesday for the start of a two-week training camp that will conclude with a friendly against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. A final cut, down to the squad of 23 that will travel to Brazil, will be made at the start of June.
The current roster is made up of players from nine different leagues, with Major League Soccer providing exactly half of the numbers. It's evidence of the continuing trend that has seen several national team members either remain in North America or return home from stints in Europe.
Klinsmann had to tread a fine line between balancing his squad while also being seen to offer appropriate reward for those who have loyally served the team during World Cup qualifying.
Johnson, who scored important goals against Mexico, Panama and Antigua and Barbuda during qualifying, likely suffered from the fact that Klinsmann views Landon Donovan's likely World Cup role as that of a forward, rather than a midfielder.
"Eddie is a player that can make a difference to a game within a second," Klinsmann said. "You try to make him understand it is very little things that moves a coach to this player or that player."
Johnson's exit opens a spot for San Jose Earthquakes striker Chris Wondolowski, whose popular bid for inclusion was even supported by Golden State Warriors NBA star Stephen Curry. Wondolowski is probably on the wrong side of the bubble right now, but much can change during camp. It's a reality that should encourage not only him but also the likes of defenders DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Timmy Chandler.
"The clock is ticking," Klinsmann said. "That is good because we can make decisions and move forward. The next three weeks is definitely about the form they are in.
"It is a daily competition. It is an awesome competition to be in because it is about going to a World Cup."
The first phase of the "competition" will be a full physical evaluation of the players. The European-based players will be coming off a full season, while the players from MLS are only a couple of months into their campaign, both factors Klinsmann will take into account as the race for the golden tickets begins.