MADRID, SPAIN – The best-laid plans of mice, men and national team managers often go awry. Jurgen Klinsmann was cruelly reminded of this in recent days as the squad he planned to face Italy on Wednesday slowly began falling apart amid injuries and illness.
The US men's national team Klinsmann might have envisioned fielding a month ago would have been almost as strong an American team as he could have hoped for. Then the injuries started. Oguchi Onyewu suffered a torn meniscus . Jermaine Jones managed to injure an ankle even though he is still serving a suspension. Then this past weekend offered the worst of all scenarios. Landon Donovan (Bronchitis), Timmy Chandler (glute injury) and Jose Torres (hamstring injury), three projected starters and key figures in Klinsmann's plans, were lost for the Italy match .
Perhaps Klinsmann should be happy all this is happening in February and not in June (when World Cup qualifying begins), but that doesn't take away from the disappointment of the missed opportunity to see the United States at full strength.
Now, instead of testing America's best against a tough Italy side in a hostile environment, Klinsmann is in patchwork mode. He's left to construct a lineup without some players who aren't exactly easy to replace. He doesn't have another center back as imposing as Onyewu. He doesn't have another fullback as dynamic as Chandler, or another central midfielder as technically skilled as Torres.
And he does not have another Donovan, who is set to miss yet another US national team match under Klinsmann. He has been bed-ridden in LA Galaxy 's training camp for some time, so any notions of a Donovan faking his way out of another Euro trip seem pretty far-fetched. Still, there is no denying the fact that Donovan has missed an inordinate amount of big-name friendlies for the United States in recent years.
Without Donovan, Klinsmann will now have to wait until May to see a lineup with both Donovan and Dempsey, a pairing he has yet to have on the field since taking over as coach - a tandem USA fans haven't seen together since last summer's Gold Cup loss to Mexico .
Troubling trend: US fans left to wonder when Landon Donovan will return to the national team (Photo by Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE).
What will the USA squad look like now, without so many key players? Klinsmann's preferences are not that tough to identify. He didn't call in Brek Shea as an emergency replacement to keep him on the bench. Shea should man one of the wings, but what Klinsmann does with the other wide midfield spot will go a long way in determining how Klinsmann plans on approaching this match.
The tandem to focus on now, in Donovan's absence, is the combo of Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson, the German-born midfielder who looked so good against Slovenia last November. Johnson has played at left back for German club Hoffenheim in recent weeks, but Klinsmann could be tempted to trot Johnson out as an attacker alongside Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Brek Shea in order to test the Italian defense.
There is no denying that Johnson is a special talent. He's smooth on the ball, but also has the speed to go at defenders and disrupt a back line. Johnson could do that from the left wing (which might then mean shifting Shea to the right wing) or at left back, where he could combine with Shea to give the US a real strong and dynamic tandem on the left flank.
As much as the attack-minded Klinsmann might be compelled to try and go after Italy , he is also a pragmatist and, as we saw against Belgium last fall, even Klinsmann knows that trying to go after strong European teams on the road isn't exactly a path to success. Italy will be organized and is capable of feasting on an American team that exposed itself by pushing too many numbers into attack, so a defensive-minded approach seems more likely for this US team.
If that happens, look for Klinsmann to turn to a midfield of Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Danny Williams. He has tried Williams on the right wing before and saw Bradley excel on the right flank against Slovenia. Going with that trio in midfield would allow him to play Johnson at left back and avoid having to turn to someone like Jonathan Spector.
Then you have central defense, where a Carlos Bocanegra-Clarence Goodson tandem makes sense, but might be one Klinsmann doesn't need to see again after fielding it against France and Slovenia. As shaky as that combo looked, it is unlikely that Klinsmann will sit Goodson for either Michael Parkhurst or Geoff Cameron.
The Italy match will do more than test some new faces. It will also offer a good opportunity for some American stars to be tested against top competition. Clint Dempsey will be hard-pressed to find chances against Italy's stingy defense, but it will be fun watching him try. Jozy Altidore drew a penalty against Italy's Giorgio Chiellini in the 2009 Confederations Cup, giving him reason for confidence when he takes the field on Wednesday.
Then there is Michael Bradley, who comes into this match as the center of attention because of his status as the only US national team player in Serie A. Bradley should get a chance to play in central midfield and will face the heady challenge of trying to contain Juventus' Andrea Pirlo. He has faced Pirlo before and isn't likely to be overwhelmed, and Bradley must surely know this match will be his chance to show Klinsmann once and for all that no United States lineup should be drawn up without Bradley penciled in as a starting central midfielder.
If Wednesday's friendly accomplishes that, and only that, then it could be enough to make the match a successful venture. Klinsmann may not get the chance to see what a full-strength US team looks like, but he just might move a few steps closer to finding out just what the strongest possible American team really is.