U.S. Men Set to Begin the Road to the 2014 World Cup
Not even the dour and damp skies over Tampa could limit Jürgen Klinsmann's contagious competitive spirit.
A torrential Florida downpour may have forced his team to move their practice from Raymond James Stadium to the University of South Florida's Corbett Field, but the German-Californian manager remained focused and committed ahead of his first competitive international with the U.S. men's national team.
The team looked sharp in a lively but abbreviated training session in front of a spatter of fans, some of whom, like the Wagner family, traveled from as far as Statesboro, Ga. to see the U.S. take on Antigua and Barbuda on Friday in their first World Cup qualifier.
The players from the small Caribbean nation took the field at Raymond James early in the afternoon, many recording their initial walk onto the pitch and into the empty but imposing stadium with smart phones and video cameras. An all-too-brief moment to savor their historic achievement before taking the field for a training session of their own on the water-logged pitch.
Having defeated Haiti and reached this stage of CONCACAF qualifying for the first time, the expectation is that Antigua and Barbuda will defend in numbers against their heavily favored opponents.
Klinsmann has made the team aware of what they'll face and wants to avoid a repeat of the flat performance versus Canada in team USA's final warm-up match last weekend.
"Its important to start with the right kind of urgency. [We] have to be alert, have to be sharp, spot on and hopefully create right away some opportunities," said the coach.
Canada frustrated U.S. efforts by clogging the midfield and playing behind the ball, a tactic the United States expects to encounter against other CONCACAF opponents.
The keys for the U.S., according to the coach, are to "play faster, move more off the ball than we did against Canada, overlaps, one-twos, change positions." Klinsmann added, "[We have to] be very, very alive, be sharp, get to the final third and go one-against-one. Play fast, keep the tempo up, play high, high, high."
The message had clearly permeated throughout the squad.
Clint Dempsey will be making his 86th international appearance with the national team and is taking part in his third, perhaps last, World Cup cycle. He expects the U.S. will dominate possession, but what he wants the whole team to realize is, "It's going to be a difficult game. That we can't just go out there and think it's going to be a cruise."
Among the initial challenges for Klinsmann will be fielding a left back. Fabian Johnson, one of the new, more promising faces to have recently joined the squad, won't recover from a calf injury in time to make the starting XI. His presumed backup at left back, Edgar Castillo, pulled a hamstring in the final practice yesterday.
Herculez Gomez, another relative newcomer to the USMNT fold, has also impressed.
Klinsmann stressed throughout the Orlando training camp that preceded this five-game stretch that positions were subject to open competition. Gomez was among those who, as Klinsmann says, "understood the moment" and seized his opportunity to play forward on this team.
Klinsmann's thoughts on Gomez and 21-year-old Borussia Dortmund reserve forward Terence Boyd reflected his philosophical sculpting of this team:
Very mobile forwards in terms of their movement off the ball, how they create spaces for the players behind them and also how they occupy the defenders. They're both a handful. They go at people, and our goal down the road is to put more pressure higher up there. Stay higher up and if you want to do that you need strikers you go at them. [Gomez] impressed us the way he reads the game, the way he works and works defenders and gets them tired.
The team as a whole are eager to put that attacking mentality to the test in the qualification stage after 10 days in the Orlando camp, three friendly matches in nine days and four days of preparation in Tampa.
Conditions be damned, U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra was unfazed by the possibility of wet weather on Friday in Tampa. "If the field's wet, the ball slides nicely, we can move the ball quickly," he said.
For the U.S. men, getting back to the World Cup for a seventh straight time may not begin in earnest until the trip to Guatemala in four days' time or in the next round of CONCACAF qualifying.
But that's looking ahead for this American squad, and as Klinsmann said to close out a media scrum at the team hotel, "It's always about the moment. How do you present yourself right now? It's about today."
Follow me on twitter @dmanichello for team updates from here in Tampa throughout the day.
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