The Winter Olympics have just ended, but the world’s collective consciousness is already preparing to be taken over by another international sports competition: the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.
While the roughly 100-day wait until the opening match on June 12 might seem like a long way off, in playing terms, it’s right around the corner. Most of the qualified teams are competing in friendlies Wednesday, and for many of them the game has some important implications.
Wednesday, the U.S. men’s national team is set to play a friendly match against Ukraine in Cyprus, and it’s the final time European-based players will be able to compete for the USMNT before their club season is over in May. Once that happens, coach Jurgen Klinsmann will name a preliminary 30-man squad and take them through a training camp and friendly matches before leaving for South America with his final 23-man roster.
There are a number of notable players who are expected to try to use this last chance to solidify their place on the plane to Brazil, transforming an ostensibly meaningless friendly into a final World Cup tryout.
One player looking to take his chance will be defender Oguchi Onyewu. A two-time World Cup veteran, Onyewu has hardly been involved with the USMNT over the past few years, and he knows his chances of making it to a third tournament rely heavily on how well he performs against the Ukrainians.
Then there’s midfielder Danny Williams, a player whose best performance in red, white and blue came right here in Columbus against Jamaica Sept. 11, 2012. His confident, mistake-free play even led many pundits to believe he could usurp veteran Jermaine Jones’ central defensive midfield position, but since then, Williams has spent the majority of his time on the sidelines. But still, the impression he made about 18 months ago could give Klinsmann incentive to trust Williams should he take his chance.
Another World Cup hopeful in the midfield is Brek Shea. A standout in Major League Soccer, Shea has found things difficult since transferring to Europe. He’s made only five appearances for the English Premier League side Stoke City since arriving in January 2013, and is now on loan with Barnsley of the English Championship for the rest of the season. Shea knows he can’t slip up now.
And those three aren’t the only ones in that position. Alejandro Bedoya, Juan Agudelo and John Brooks all face a similar challenge when it comes to impressing Klinsmann. The sheer number of World Cup squad hopefuls means someone is bound to miss out.
In all likelihood, Klinsmann will give appearances to some players who are nailed on to start the team’s first World Cup group game against Ghana, while at the same time mixing in those looking to catch his eye.
Of course, there could be a number of unforeseen circumstances between now and May that shake up the USMNT roster pool, with things like injuries, the emergence of young talent or a simple loss of form.
But no matter which way you look at it, the final whistle in Cyprus will mean the journey to the World Cup has reached its final stage.
So while many Americans might not see the tournament coming into view, the collection of players hoping to face the likes of Germany and Portugal this summer know that their chance is sharply in focus.