As the U.S. Men’s National Team ramps up its final preparations for next month’s CONCACAF Cup playoff with Mexico, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has brought several veteran faces back into the fold to compete for spots in October’s playoff.
Three of the players that return to the mix are midfielder Jermaine Jones, defender Matt Besler and goalkeeper Tim Howard – a trio that played nearly every minute of every match at last summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil. All recently absent from the team for different reasons, the three returned to MNT camp this week with joy at seeing teammates again and anticipation for the task ahead.
“It’s always nice to be back with the boys,” Jones told ussoccer.com Monday. “I think every player is happy to represent his country and I always want to play.”
Set to join the National Team for June’s friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany, Jones suffered a groin injury in his last match with the New England Revolution prior to leaving for the games. The injury required surgery, which subsequently kept him from last month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.
While he got to see his teammates when they came to Boston for their second group match against Haiti, all he could do was watch. In the end, he felt the same disappointment as his teammates on the field when the U.S. fell 2-1 to Jamaica in the tournament semifinals, setting up October’s showdown with Mexico.
“It’s always bad if you have to fix an injury and be out because of it,” he said. “I was sad to sit upstairs and not play and watch on TV. I think the whole team isn’t happy with the result at the Gold Cup, but we have a chance on October 10 where we can fix it. This is the goal, and now we have two games with Brazil and Peru. I think we see them differently than other friendlies.”
Having first returned with New England a month ago, Jones has gradually built up his fitness, playing the first hour of the Revolution’s 1-0 win against the Philadelphia Union over the weekend.
“I try to get my fitness back,” he added. “I got 60 minutes with my club team now. It’s good to get a little bit harder training and get some good balance. I want to get my body to 100 percent as quick as possible.”
Following a 15-save performance as the U.S. bowed out to Belgium in the Round of 16 last year in Brazil, 36-year-old Tim Howard elected to take a year-long hiatus from the National Team to spend more time with his family. Having kept in contact with Klinsmann throughout his time out, U.S. Soccer announced Howard would return for this camp almost a year to the day of that announcement.
“It’s great to come back and see a lot of familiar faces and a few new ones,” Howard told ussoccer.com. “I’ve kept in touch with some of the guys. It’s always a good feeling to be with this team. I’ve done it for so many years, for so long, it’s like riding a bicycle.”
With 104 appearances to his name, Howard is the most-capped U.S. goalkeeper of all-time, but the caveat for his return to the National Team picture sees him as second choice in the pecking order behind long-time teammate Brad Guzan.
“I’ve been in competition with Brad for the last eight or nine years,” Howard said. “He and I are good friends, everyone knows that, but for me nothing changes. It’s no problem. This is where everyone wants to be.”
Besler’s return to the team is his first since being an unused substitute in April’s 2-0 friendly win against CONCACAF Cup opponents Mexico in San Antonio. After watching the summer friendlies and Gold Cup from home, the Sporting Kansas City center back was eager to be recalled for what has become a heated competition for starting spots on the back line.
“It’s something I’m looking forward to,” Besler told ussoccer.com. “It’s a goal of any player when they step on the field, they want to be a part of the starting group. That’s my focus. It was good to see some of the new guys get experience on the field at the Gold Cup, and I’m just looking forward to getting back out on the field and competing with these guys.”
Back in camp with a clear message about what the next 10 days will be about, all three players are up for the challenge to make next month’s squad that will look to ensure the U.S. a place at the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
“We want to put a lot of emphasis on these games and prepare the right way in order to be ready for that match,” said Besler.
“The games now against Peru and Brazil are the beginning for that game in October,” added Jones. “We know this is the main game and we know it’s important to win that game and play at home. Mexico is a good team, but the main focus now is these two games. We want to come out with two wins.”
“Preparation is key,” said Howard. “Without a doubt, the games coming up are important – they’re going to be tough games, as is the Mexico game. They’ll put us in environments that aren’t easy to cope with, but we’ve got the players to not only mentally cope with it, but physically push these teams. Brazil is fantastic, and Peru is going to give us all we can handle. They’re both good teams, but we’re up for the fight.”