Yes, the U.S. national team already clinched a spot in the 2014 World Cup. And yes, it’s true that Panama, still clawing for a Cup berth, will have much more at stake than the U.S. team Tuesday in Panama City, where the teams play the final match of the CONCACAF qualifying round.
But anybody who believes this game isn’t important to the Americans hasn’t spoken to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“We want to finish off the year on a high note,” Klinsmann said upon naming his roster last week. “These games already count toward the World Cup in 2014 in terms of the internal competition and the mentality we are trying to build.”
Other than injured Michael Bradley (ankle), Clint Dempsey (hamstring), Eddie Johnson (groin strain) and Fabian Johnson (ankle), the rest of the top U.S. players were called in to duty for Friday’s game against Jamaica and the Tuesday game against Panama. The moment the team booked its spot, Klinsmann stepped up his expectations.
“Once you achieve the goal of qualifying, you understand that the next higher level is already waiting for us,” Klinsmann said. “The World Cup is a couple of levels higher up than the qualifying, even if it’s not an easy thing do go through. The benchmark in the World Cup is far higher, so whatever we do now already prepares us for that. Everything we do now sets the tone for summer of 2014, and therefore, it’s important the players understand this is serious business.
“We want to see improvement of the entire squad, and we want to see competition in every spot. You only have to say one word: Brazil. Then, you automatically get fired up.”
Klinsmann said nobody should take his starting job for granted, not even wily veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard. He said backup Brad Guzan, who plays at Aston Villa in England, will start against Panama because he earned the right to do so.
“You want to have your established player who is No. 1 in this position being challenged,” Klinsmann said. “You want to have him on his toes, and know the next guy is waiting. It keeps you hungry and motivated and focused. With the goalkeepers, we have one of the best situations in the world.”
Two South Floridians seem to be solidifying their spots on the team – forward Jozy Altidore of Boca Raton and midfielder Alejandro Bedoya of Weston. Bedoya caught Klinsmann’s attention with his Gold Cup performance, and is now playing well for Nantes in the French first division. Altidore moved to English Premier League club Sunderland this season, and though he hasn’t scored, Klinsmann likes what he has seen.
“I’m personally very, very happy with how Jozy is coming along in the Premier League so far,” Klinsmann said. “He hasn’t scored the goals yet that he expects from himself. But I watch his games and he’s high energy and he’s a handful. He challenges back lines, and he’s often by himself and the support is not what it should be. He’s already been through a coaching change, which is not easy to digest. I see that jump to the Premier League being very positive. He challenges himself in a difficult environment and it’s coming along. He just needs to be patient, and his goals will come.”