Do you have a valid United States passport? Has someone once used the word “technical” to describe your skills with a soccer ball? Are you under the age of 26? Or do you have a halfway decent left foot?
Don’t worry. This isn’t some new, obscure section of your Match.com questionnaire. It’s a career opportunity, because if you answered “yes” to the first question and two of the other three, congratulations: U.S. men’s national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has probably called you into one of his team’s training camps before. And if not, don’t worry, it’s coming.
Klinsmann has gone to extraordinarily lengths to expand the U.S.’s player pool. He took a teenager in Julian Green who couldn’t make his first team at club-level to last summer’s World Cup. Oscar Sorto and Christian Dean, young defenders who rarely play in Major League Soccer, were part of a group called into camp earlier this year, presumably so they could get experience for next year’s Olympic team. Minnesota United attacker Miguel Ibarra plays in the second division, but that may be less of a reach than Emerson Hyndman, a bench player for a second division team in England. Hell, 20-year-old forward Jordan Morris has gotten multiple looks, and he’s still in college.
Contrast that with the U.S.’s arch rivals, Mexico, where it’s a big deal if a new goalkeeper gets a chance. Mexico’s roster surprises are highlighted by the inclusion of someone like 28-year-old midfielder Luis Montes, who was on the country’s World Cup team 10 months ago until a broken leg sidelined him. It took a surge from Santos Laguna striker Javier Orozco to push humbled América attacker Oribe Peralta from the team, as was the case last month, and Pumas’ Eduardo Herrera had to wait until he was 26 years old and playing the best soccer of his life to get his first cap.
To say that Jurgen Klinsmann and Miguel Herrera take very different approaches to their player pools is an understatement. And it’s not a matter of right or wrong. But damn, are they different.
That they are so different shouldn’t be much of a surprise, though. They exist, and manage, in entirely different worlds: one in the pressure cookers of a soccer-mad nation desperate for a global breakthrough; the other in a sports-crazed culture still looking for a formula that will take it to soccer prominence
Klinsmann is managing a team in a period of transition. It has few players in their primes, with Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, Jozy Altidore, Fabian Johnson and Alejandro Bedoya making up the entire list of players who are (a.) absolute no-doubt core players right now, and (b.) should maintain that place come 2018. There are some veterans Klinsmann can hope for, like captain Clint Dempsey, World Cup star Tim Howard and midfield wrecking ball Jermaine Jones, but the other five players form the true core for 2018. The rest of the roster comes down to hoping others emerge.
That hope hinges on a group of inconsistent players — like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson — sorting things out. Youngsters like DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Julian Green, Gyasi Zardes and Rubio Rubin may have to make the leap, translating potential into production. And there is always the hope that dual nationals could fortify the team. But with so many question marks and few young players looking like sure bets to be long-time internationals , the best Klinsmann can do is keep trying new players. He has to try everyone because there is no clear way forward.
Herrera (right) has no such concerns. Sure, he’ll continue to give young players chances, as he is doing with Chivas center back Carlos Salcedo, Puebla speed merchant Jürgen Damm and Atlas midfielder Arturo Gonzalez. He’s also sure to reward older players’ surge in form, like with Herrera and Orozco. But he knows what he has at the core of his team. His player pool, while hardly small, is not an easy one to break into. Cementing a consistent place is even harder. .
Mexico has a sea of established stars — Héctor Moreno, Andrés Guardado, Héctor Herrera, Giovani dos Santos, Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, Carlos Vela, Memo Ochoa and Miguel Layún — giving the team a crop of players in their primes who are proven for both club and country. There are no concerns about where the core of the team will come from. The players who are pushing for their spots in the team are the likes of Hugo Ayala, Carlos Peña, Marco Fabián, Javier Aquino, Juan Carlos Medina, Miguel Ponce, Herrera and Orozco. Every one of those players has played and played well internationally. It’s quality depth, creating strong competition on the fringes of the squad.
Even when Miguel Herrera looks to get young players, the quality at his disposal would make Klinsmann drool. There is no Yedlin, who hasn’t played a competitive club match in months, or a 19-year-old just getting blooded in like Rubin. A player like Green, who is glued to the bench at Hamburg, isn’t even in the picture for Mexico.
Instead, El Tri can trot out Diego Reyes, a 22-year-old World Cup veteran and linchpin to in Portuguese powerhouse Porto’s defense. They can turn to 23-year-old Raúl Jiménez, who got them into the World Cup and has since moved to Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. Even among their up-and-comers they have 22-year-old Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who made nearly 40 appearances as a teenager for Monterrey before moving to FC Twente in the Netherlands, where he is a regular.
Klinsmann would love to have the options that Herrera has. His biggest task as U.S. manager is to build a program strong enough so his replacement has the advantages afforded Mexico. In the meantime, he calls up everyone. The bar to stay with the U.S. and play in a tournament may be high, but the bar to get in, have a camp to impress, and maybe play a match in a half-empty stadium is extraordinarily low.
This, too, is not much of a surprise. The Development Academy, U.S. Soccer’s attempt to overhaul youth development, is still in its infancy. It began years after Mexico did the same to its academies. That initiative is evolving while the player pool is in transition, as was the case two years ago for a then struggling Mexico. The further into the process you look the more startling the gap between the two rivals appears, with the divide most evident in the last nine months of player call-ups.
It’s a good thing, too. Klinsmann’s project couldn’t withstand the pressures to win that exist in Mexico. If El Tri had a nine months like the Americans are having, Klinsmann may be out of a job. He would certainly be on a very hot seat. His name would be met by boos, and he would be bombarded by angry fans while walking down the street. Klinsmann gives players like Morris looks knowing he can get away with it, while in Mexico there’s no such thing as getting away with anything.
The U.S. and Mexico are rivals and, at their bests, there isn’t much that separates them. That’s been the case for 15 years now. But go down a bit further and the gap gets very large. Klinsmann and Herrera have very different player pools, a difference exemplified by how their respective managers handle them.