Landon Donovan. Jozy Altidore. Fabian Johnson. Brek Shea. Terrence Boyd. Edgar Castillo.
All are national team regulars.
All are absent this weekend for crucial qualifying matches for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
Normally that shouldn’t be a major concern for semifinal matches against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala. But few considered Canada and El Salvador to be a major threat for the U.S. Under-23 team earlier this summer -- then the team finished with a draw and a loss, and Team USA was out in the first round of 2012 Olympic qualifying.
“What happened to the Olympic team was a huge warning to whoever thinks CONCACAF is an easy region to go through and to qualify, whether it’s for the Olympics or whether it’s for the World Cup,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said earlier this week.
The stakes in these next five days are equally as important: After shaky results so far in the semifinal round, Team USA is one of three teams still in contention for the two berths into the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying next year.
To confirm first place in the group and automatic advancement, Team USA must win Friday in Antigua (7 p.m., beIN Sport) and Tuesday at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. (6 p.m. CDT, ESPN2/Telefutura). Anything less and the situation gets quite a bit stickier with the United States, Guatemala and Jamaica all tied with seven points.
Despite the unexpected roster, Klinsmann is bullish about the team’s chances.
“We want to finish out the group in first place and move on to the hexagonal for 2013,” he said, referring to the nickname for the six-team CONCACAF qualifying final round. “We’re all ready to go.”
The player absences are for a variety of reasons.
Midfielders Donovan -- a 2008 U.S. Olympian and the U.S. national team’s all-time leading scorer -- and Shea were injured in recent MLS games and ruled out as of Tuesday. Johnson (flu) and Castillo (foot injury), the top two options at left back, were ruled out Wednesday, though Johnson is expected to be ready for Tuesday’s game.
The absences of Altidore and Boyd, meanwhile, are self-imposed and somewhat curious decisions given the fragile nature of these upcoming games.
Though Altidore has played some of his best soccer this season for his AZ Alkmaar — his eight goals are tied for the Dutch league lead and include some highlight-reel spectaculars — Klinsmann left the 22-year-old striker off the roster for these two games, citing Altidore’s recent lack of production on the international level.
The powerful forward has not scored for the national team since last November, and his streak of scoring at least two goals per year for the national team in each year since 2008 is in jeopardy of being snapped given this roster.
“I communicated to Jozy I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months,” Klinsmann said. “I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason he’s not coming in is mainly because of his performances in Jamaica and at home.
“This is a decision as of today for these two games. The door is always open, and we hope to see a positive reaction on his end. We hope to see more commitment and effort to his approach.”
Boyd, a 21-year-old rising star who has been a regular call-up under Klinsmann this year, was left off the roster in favor of former national team regular Eddie Johnson and veteran MLS journeyman Alan Gordon. Both players are having storybook seasons in MLS but have yet to play under Klinsmann since he took the reins from Bob Bradley 14 months ago. They complement Herculez Gomez, a workhorse option up top, who is likely to start both matches.
“We wanted to bring in Eddie and Alan because both are really strong in the air,” Klinsmann said. “We expect two difficult games where the opponent will probably play more defensively. They will probably get a lot of numbers in their box or in front of their box to play more defensive against us, so we need to have [the forwards] force things with crosses coming over the wings and be really strong in the air.”
The United States is still working to find an identity under Klinsmann, who led West Germany to the World Cup title as a player in 1990 -- and then as a manager led Germany to an unexpected run to third place at the 2006 World Cup. A draw on the road at Guatemala and a loss on the road at Jamaica have made the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying more tense than many U.S. fans had hoped.
Klinsmann does see room for optimism, though. Although he’d surely have liked to have Donovan and the other injured players, Klinsmann will have star midfielders Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley back in full fitness. Dempsey played every minute in the two qualifiers against Jamaica but had not played a competitive match for three months while he waited for a club transfer; it finally came in late August when he moved to Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League. Bradley is back in the fray after missing September's qualifiers against Jamaica with a thigh injury.
Meanwhile, veteran defenders Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra and stalwart goalkeeper Tim Howard bring leadership to the back line.
Their leadership and performance will go a long way in determining whether the favored U.S. men reach the round to which they were expected coast, or whether this group will go down in history as the team that was unable to overcome a series of absences and underachieved.
“I think we put a group of players together that are anxious to get those games approached the right way and get those six points that we want,” Klinsmann said.