Your move, Klinsi. Best make it count.
When the history of American soccer is written by some future scribe, the chapters concerning the Jurgen Klinsmann era might yet tell tales of glorious achievement and the long-prophesied breakthrough on the international stage.
As of this moment, though, Klinsi's reign is being overshadowed—possibly even defined—by America's neighbors to the south.
Allow me a digression to explain.
Competitiveness comes naturally to neighbors and siblings, and especially to footballing nations that act like both. Where there's competition, there are winners and losers, leaders and the pack.
And when your closest neighbor and fiercest footballing rival pulls off the most important win in its history, you better have a response ready.
That landmark win came this past weekend for Mexico, when El Tri defeated the mighty Brazil 2-1 for the Olympic gold medal. Coincidentally enough, Klinsmann and the United States will have their first chance at rebuttal this Wednesday in the smouldering cauldron known as the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.
No pressure, Team USA.
Before we go any further, let's clear up a few issues.
First, the Mexican squad for this week's friendly will have almost nothing in common with the Mexican squad that won Olympic gold. That team was a U-23 version of El Tri (with the allotted three over-age players), and none of the gold medalists will be on hand this Wednesday at the Azteca.
But that's part of what made Mexico's accomplishment so impressive. Using a squad of mostly unheralded domestic players, Mexico defeated big, bad Brazil—the same exact Brazil team that demolished the senior U.S. squad in May—in a match with massive international stakes.
Second, Klinsman and the United States cannot hope to do anything Wednesday that could overshadow Mexico's Olympic accomplishment. That will take years, not to mention a renewed commitment to developing and integrating young American talent into a senior squad that's quickly growing long in the tooth.
But Wednesday could serve as a stepping-off point, provided Klinsi and the Americans approach this match the right way.
The Mexicans clearly have taken the correct approach to developing young talent. After winning the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Cup, El Tri repeated the feat in 2011, the same year they won the Gold Cup and finished third in the U-20 World Cup.
As Jose de Jesus Ortiz writes for the Houston Chronicle, those successes came about thanks in part to a commitment that runs deeper than just the senior national team:
All of the players who played the final today for Mexico are playing in the Mexican First Division. The Mexican Federation has been willing to let the players focus on the Olympics for over a year, letting them leave the club when the national team called them up for camps.
Major League Soccer must figure out a way to get more playing time for its young players. There just aren’t enough minutes—not to mention minutes against quality competition—in the MLS Reserve League.
It's a fair point, and it raises the larger issue of developing talent. For clubs around the world, the goal in developing talent in-house is to improve the product, either by promoting those players to the senior team or by selling them for a profit.
But maybe that's not the ideal set-up for MLS and the U.S. national team. As the Mexican federation has shown, a commitment to youth development—by both the federation and member clubs—can be crucial to future success.
That brings us to Wednesday's friendly between Mexico and the United States. Mexico's squad will be strong, with Javier Hernandez leading the attack and Guillermo Ochoa minding the net.
Klinsmann's U.S. roster is a bit of a mixed bag. Senior stalwarts like Landon Donovan and Tim Howard are present, but the squad also includes a number of lesser-known (at least to outsiders) players.
Winning is always important, especially against your fiercest rival, but Wednesday's match might serve as a chance for Klinsmann to blood some of his up-and-coming players.
MLS defenders Matt Besler and Steven Beitashour are both 25, but neither has a senior international cap. Midfielder Joe Corona, 22, changed his affiliation from Mexico to the United States earlier this year, and he'll be eager to show what he can do, especially against Mexico.
Brek Shea, meanwhile, is still only 22, though he's been in the spotlight for a couple years now while earning 12 senior caps. And up top, 21-year-old Terrence Boyd has impressed in a handful of appearances. Now that he's with Rapid Vienna, he should have more opportunities to play top opponents than he did in the reserves with Borussia Dortmund.
Clearly, not all of those guys play domestically, so a renewed focus on youth development in the MLS wouldn't benefit all of them. But playing more often for the senior international team would benefit both them and Klinsmann, who must be beginning the process of whittling down his player pool to a workable World Cup squad.
But this is one area where Mexico clearly has an advantage over the U.S. As Mexico showed us this summer (and last), giving young players a chance can be a good thing down the road, whether it's at club or international level.
With just under two years left until the next World Cup, the U.S. is at risk of falling too far behind Mexico. After last summer's comeback in the Gold Cup final, the Mexicans are now riding the wave of a lifetime with gold medals gleaming brightly in tow.
Now, with the stakes as high as they've ever been between the U.S. and Mexico, it's time for the United States and Klinsmann to follow their lead.
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