Home Guard: MLS Playoffs Run into USMNT October Qualifiers (Updated)

Andy KontyCorrespondent IIOctober 9, 2013

Sep 6, 2013; San Jose, COSTA RICA; United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann reacts against Costa Rica in a FIFA World Cup Qualifier at Estadio Nacional. Costa Rica defeated the United States 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the very first edition of the Home Guard your intrepid USMNT analyst predicted that the October World Cup qualifiers would inevitably raise the ugly specter of the nefarious club versus country tug-of-war.  

The first tugs on the rope are pulling the principles into the mud. The only questions remaining are whether the war will go hot or stay cold, and which players could benefit from the battle.

A Dilemma Wrapped Inside a Paradox

According to FIFA (emphasis added):

a) Qualifying matches for an international competition played on fixed/set dates

These matches take priority over matches in a national championship. In other words, matches in the national championship or cup competition should not be arranged on one of the fixed/set dates.

A club holding the registration of a player called up to play in the national team must release him to the national association on the fixed/set dates for international matches in each calendar year.

The player shall also be released for the period of preparation. If the player is called up to play in a qualifying match for an international competition, this period shall be 4 days (including the day of the match). The period of release shall be prolonged to 5 days if the match in question is held on a different continent to that on which the club is domiciled.

Major League Soccer has only itself to blame for not scheduling around the international calendar. However, the conflict became more acute when Jurgen Klinsmann's lads punched their ticket to Brazil during the September qualifiers.  

Now MLS teams can claim with a straight face that their players are not needed for international team duty. They then have to hold that poker face while contriving to keep their best players in town with the MLS playoffs on the line.

FIFA rules and MLS drools.

Jurgen Klinsmann, meanwhile, must perform verbal gymnastics to explain why he needs his best players for games he doesn't need to win. Doubling his contortions is the fact that Klinsmann's team could benefit from giving playing time to newer players and players on the World Cup Final roster bubble. 

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But of course he cannot say that.

Major League Soccer's self-imposed dilemma comes wrapped inside Klinsmann's particularly pleasant paradox.

LA Galaxy and former USMNT head coach Bruce Arena
LA Galaxy and former USMNT head coach Bruce ArenaKelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

LA Galaxy

The Galaxy are tied on points with the Colorado Rapids for the final Western Conference playoff spots.  The San Jose Earthquakes are only four points behind.

LA Galaxy head coach and former national team coach Bruce Arena became the first MLS representative to openly request that his players not miss an important club match. This is an evident irony from the man who was once openly critical of Klinsmann's use, or disuse, of MLS players.

Landon Donvoan was also surprisingly open about his desire to play for the Galaxy rather than travel to Panama for Tuesday's final qualifier. Donovan was careful to say that he is happy to play against Jamaica on Friday, but he clearly wants to be with his club when they host the Montreal Impact the day after the Panama game.

Omar Gonzalez was called up for the qualifiers, but withdrew after suffering a left hip strain in the Galaxy's weekend match against Chivas USA. Don't be surprised to see him on the field next Wednesday against Montreal.

Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid
Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi SchmidJoe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle Sounders

The Sounders can clinch a playoff birth with one win in either of their two games during the international window. They will need to rely on their bench as starters Brad Evans and Eddie Johnson were called up for national team duty.

The lone enigma for the Sounders is Clint Dempsey. Nursing a tricky hamstring since mid-September, Klinsmann expressed concern over his captain's form but did not ask Dempsey to join the Nats for the October qualifiers. 

On Tuesday MLSsoccer.com reported that Dempsey will be available for the Sounders on Wednesday.

Given Dempsey's lack of game minutes since transferring to the Sounders, Klinsmann may be content to leave him be and not request him for either qualifier. Klinsmann could pull rank and demand his star player report to camp if Dempsey is fit enough to play, but the costs would far outweigh the benefits.

Expect Klinsmann's pragmatism and habit of avoiding open conflict to let him turn a blind eye to whatever shenanigans transpire in Cascadia.

Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes
Sporting KC head coach Peter VermesMike Stobe/Getty Images

Sporting KC

Sporting sit comfortable in second place in the Eastern Conference. One win in their final three games puts them into the playoffs.

With the U.S. playing Jamaica in Kansas City on Friday, Sporting's members of the Home Guard seem to have no problem missing Sporting's game with Houston for a home World Cup qualifier and a free trip to Panama.

Graham Zusi and Matt Besler should see significant minutes for Klinsmann in the two qualifiers. Klinsmann has only three centerbacks on his roster so Besler will anchor the back line for both games. With Dempsey gone and Donovan asking to stay home for Panama, Klinsmann needs Zusi's attacking skills.

San Jose Earthquakes interim head coach Mark Watson
San Jose Earthquakes interim head coach Mark WatsonKyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose will be missing two Hondurans for their Wednesday match against Colorado. The Earthquakes are currently on the outside looking in at the MLS playoffs. They need to make up four points in their final three games.

Clarence Goodson seemed a good bet for a call-up but a knee injury in mid-September has kept him on the sideline for the last couple of weeks. Even when Gonzalez withdrew, Klinsmann selected Michael Orozco rather than Goodson to fill the hole at centerback.

USMNT fans should not read too much into this as Goodson is in a similar situation to Demspey in that neither has played enough minutes recently to be match fit. The subplot to their club availability being that both players' clubs need them for key MLS games.

Chris Wondolowski is fading from Klinsmann's radar as he calls up younger forwards to carry Jozy Altidore's gear. Again, its possible to read into this a nod by Klinsmann to San Jose as it would be unlikely that Wondo played any minutes if he were called in.

Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis
Real Salt Lake head coach Jason KreisJoe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Real Salt Lake

Real only needs a single point in their last three games to make the MLS playoffs and fortunately don't play any MLS games during the international dates.

Kyle Beckerman should see significant minutes with Michael Bradley still recovering from his ankle injury. Klinsmann will no doubt start Jermaine Jones and Mix Diskerud will get plenty of playing time, but Beckerman is the only pure defensive midfielder on the USMNT roster.

Goalkeeper Nick Rimando will get some extra training and a sleepless night in Panama as he remains behind Tim Howard and Brad Guzan on the USMNT depth chart.

Carlos Bocanegra tries to claw his back into the USMNT
Carlos Bocanegra tries to claw his back into the USMNTKelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting by the Phone

Klinsmann had several MLS players on his speed dial when the U.S. played the September qualifiers. As he still has five players with yellow cards and given the fact that he only named 20 players to his squad, don't be surprised if Klinsmann calls in other Home Guardsman.

Carrying only three centerbacks, Klinsmann could decide to give his old captain one more chance to show what he can do now that he is playing regular first-team minutes. That's right, Carlos Bocanegra is still chomping at the bit to play for the Nats and it certainly wouldn't hurt Chivas USA to play without Bocanegra. This is a low cost, high publicity move that is right in Klinsmann's idiosyncratic wheelhouse.

We've been tracking Juan Agudelo as a potential member of the Home Guard but the young forward just returned from injury, the New England Revolution have to make up three points in three games and Klinsmann is loaded with options at forward. 

An intriguing possibility is New York Red Bulls' fullback Heath Pearce. New York clinched their playoff spot and Pearce has 33 total caps though Klinsmann has only called him in once. But given the U.S. lack of depth at fullback and Pearce's club form over the last three years, why not?

Anyone else see any surprises on the next week's horizon?

Update 10/10/13 9:45 a.m.

Clint Dempsey put in 39 minutes for the Sounders on Wednesday night in their weak 4-1 loss to the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Clarence Goodson started and went the full 90 in a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids. Chris Wondolowski had the game's only goal as San Jose kept their playoff hopes alive by moving within a single point of the Rapids for the final Western Conference playoff spot.

Update 10/10/13  10:20 p.m.

Your intrepid USMNT analyst completely missed the fact that San Jose didn't play for ten days and that Goodson and Wondo could be available for Klinsmann without harming the Earthquakes playoff chances.  Sure enough, the coach called them up today.

Klinsmann also brought in Brad Davis whose Houston Dynamo also have the next ten days off.

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