MIAMI, FLORIDA – Under a brilliant South Florida sun, 21 U.S. men's national soccer team players assembled for a light workout on Monday morning, their last act on American soil before traveling to Honduras and diving head-long into the cauldron of World Cup qualifying.
On Wednesday they will kick off the final phase of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil in San Pedro Sula to take on their first of five opponents, all of whom they will play once at home and once away.
The players in attendance - three more were due to arrive in camp later in the day - had assembled from their respective clubs from all over Europe and North America. The traveling roster for the toughest assignment the U.S. has faced since being eliminated from the last World Cup in South Africa in the Round of 16 in 2010 was devoid of major surprises.
Star forward Landon Donovan had long since announced his intention to take a sabbatical of sorts, rendering his absence a foregone conclusion. Steve Cherundolo, the 33-year-old mainstay of the team at right back was the only other significant absentee on the roster, courtesy of an injury. Chris Wondolowski, meanwhile, who has scored as many goals as anybody in each of the last three Major League Soccer seasons, also didn't make the cut. But the San Jose Earthquakes striker's searing club form hasn't yet translated to the national team and he was the most disappointing player in a tepid 0-0 draw with Canada in late January.
In Cherundolo's right back spot you will almost certainly find Timmy Chandler on Wednesday. The German-American had faded out of the U.S. national team picture as he contemplated whether he might stand a chance at playing for Germany, before committing himself to the Stars and Stripes. By accepting head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's call-up, Chandler has quickly snapped back into focus and re-emerged as the heir apparent to Cherundolo.
"It gives us more options and more quality in our roster," Klinsmann said of Chandler on a conference call following practice. "He has qualities that you've already seen that we want to build on."
Indeed, paired with Fabian Johnson, another German-American who seems a lock to start at left back for the foreseeable future, the two imports combine to solve long-time headaches. As such, they are most welcome recruits, however unnatural their inclusion might appear to some since they are Americans only in name by virtue of their American servicemen fathers.
On the flanks further upfield, the U.S. roster does appear thin, however. Of the eight midfielders Klinsmann called up, only Brad Davis is a natural winger, and he's been absent from the first-string national team for almost three years. Graham Zusi has been playing out wide of late, slotting in on the right in Klinsmann's habitual 4-4-2 system, but he, too, is naturally a central attacking midfielder.
In central defense, another problematic area, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler were presumably called in to deputize for incumbents Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron, getting picked over the much more experienced Clarence Goodson and Oguchi Onyewu. Yet both MLS defenders are rather green at this level, inducing nervousness at what will transpire if any of the starters should need replacing.
"They are here because they had a very impressive three and a half weeks with us [in January camp]," explained Klinsmann. "Clarence is in pre-season in Denmark and Gooch isn't playing at Malaga at all. We believe that Matt Besler has the capability to step up to the international and so does Omar, so that gives us more options in a very busy 2013."
Creating options for both the future and the upcoming summer, in which the U.S. will embark on both World Cup Qualifying and the CONCACAF Gold Cup, seems a trend in this roster, as 11 of 24 players have played fewer than 12 games for the U.S.
The German head coach and his disposition as bright as the sunny weather on Monday morning didn't seem encumbered by any of the above, however. "I told the players it's all about alertness and about commitment and about determination and the way they trained and presented themselves already this morning," he said. "It looks like they're ready."
Full U.S. roster:
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Sean Johnson
Defenders: Matt Besler, Carlos Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Edgar Castillo, Timmy Chandler, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson, Michael Parkhurst
Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Brad Davis, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Jose Torres, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson
(R to L) Chandler, Cameron, Bocanegra, Johnson
(R to L) Zusi, Bradley, Jones, Kljestan