Pressure on for USMNT bubble players

Posted by Doug McIntyre

GLASGOW -- Watching Terrence Boyd and Sacha Kljestan laugh and joke their way through a spirited game of pool in a quiet corner of the U.S. team hotel here Thursday afternoon, you'd never know the pressure that the two bubble players are facing over the next five days.

For Boyd and Kljestan -- and several others on the squad who will take on Scotland at Hampden Park on Friday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) and Austria in Vienna on Nov. 19 -- this month's two-game slate may represent their last, best chance to convince U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann that they deserve a spot on the Yanks' roster for next summer's World Cup in Brazil.

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Klinsmann won't name the final 23-man list for another six months, but time is running short. That's particularly true for European and Mexican-based members of the national team, such as the aforementioned duo, plus John Brooks, Eric Lichaj and Michael Orozco, who will have just one more international game, in early March, to play with the U.S. before the final cut -- if they are even called in at all.

That makes this trip absolutely crucial.

"These next two games are a big opportunity for me and some other players to show Jurgen that we deserve to get a ticket for Brazil," Boyd told ESPNFC on Thursday. "Whenever I get the chance to get minutes on the pitch now, I have to deliver."

Boyd enters Friday's match in good form. The 22-year-old, in his second season with Austrian club Rapid Vienna, has nine goals in all competitions this year and he has spent long hours working with ex-Bayern Munich striker Carsten Jancker -- now an assistant coach with Rapid -- to improve his overall game.

Boyd seemed a safe bet to survive the World Cup purge a little more than a year ago. Since then, though, veteran forward Eddie Johnson returned to the fold, and fellow youngster Aron Johannsson burst onto the scene. Now, Boyd might be on the outside looking in.

The competition Kljestan faces is even tougher. The 28-year-old, who was one of the final cuts in 2010, arrived in Glasgow playing the best soccer of his career, but has the misfortune of occupying the same position as deep-lying central midfielders Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, both guaranteed starters when healthy.

With Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud also jockeying for spots behind Bradley and Jones, Kljestan has found opportunities hard to come by. He wasn't called in at all for the Yanks' two September qualifiers, prompting a sit-down with Klinsmann the following month, after the U.S. had qualified for 2014.

"We had a good meeting in Kansas City," Kljestan said. "I'd been involved in every camp for 11 months straight, so to not be involved in that one, I just let him know I was disappointed. He understood."

Klinsmann, for his part, recently expressed regret for not using Kljestan more. The German gave Kljestan a rare start last month in Panama, during which he played well. But Kljestan himself admits that he hasn't always played with confidence with the national team. "That's something you need to do to get to the next level."

As important as these two games are for the guys still on the fence, they aren't everything. Although the U.S. will take the field just twice between now and May, Klinsmann and his staff will be tracking the hopefuls from afar.

"They have to play as much as they can for their club teams -- we watch them week-in, week-out," Klinsmann said. "Within the national team environment, we know we only have a few games, a few training sessions to see them."

Still, Kljestan is fully aware of what's at stake this week. But he also knows that ultimately the decision isn’t his -- which helps explain the smiles around the pool table.

"As I've gotten older, I've put less pressure on myself," he said during a break in the action. "I know I'm a couple notches better than I was in 2010, but all I can do is give everything I have.

"The rest," he said, "is out of my hands."

NOTES:

-- Backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan has been a brick wall for Aston Villa this season, but although some have suggested -- prematurely, it must be said -- that he should replace starter Tim Howard in the U.S. net, nobody is happier about Guzan's play than the longtime No.1. "He's been in brilliant form, fantastic," Howard said. "We compete like dogs, but off the field he's one of my best friends. I wish him all the success in the world."

-- Klinsmann said the injuries to Landon Donovan, who was not named to this roster because of a lingering ankle issue, and to Clint Dempsey (right calf strain) and Fabian Johnson (right ankle strain), who both withdrew from the squad Wednesday, aren't serious. "They should be all right in a couple of weeks," Klinsmann said, adding that Howard will wear the captain's armband in Dempsey's absence.

-- That wasn't the only good news on the injury front for the USMNT. Schalke midfielder Jermaine Jones told ESPFC that, after consulting with doctors in Germany, it was determined that he will not require surgery to repair his sore knee. Originally, the plan was for Jones to go under the knife next month, during the Bundesliga's winter break.

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