Photo by ISIphotos.com
By THOMAS FLOYD
BALTIMORE — Eddie Johnson wasn’t anticipating the call. Neither was Matt Besler. But when they found themselves on the line with U.S. Men’s National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann earlier this week, they didn’t hesitate to pack their bags.
Johnson and Besler, key members of the first-choice U.S. team that went 3-0 in World Cup qualifying last month, trained for the first time with the Americans’ Gold Cup squad Friday at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
While they are joining a reserve-heavy U.S. side, they know representing one’s country is a tremendous responsibility no matter the circumstance. When the U.S. takes on El Salvador in the quarterfinals Sunday in front of a sell-out M&T Bank Stadium crowd, it’s not likely to feel much like a second-tier tournament anyway.
“It’s an honor,” Johnson said. “Anytime you can wear the U.S. Men’s National Team jersey, it’s an unbelievable achievement, and it’s something that you don’t take for granted. A lot of people would like to be in our shoes, in our position, so you’re going to make the most of it whenever you get a call-up.”
The duo, along with inexperienced forward Alan Gordon, have been brought in as knockout round reinforcements for the U.S., which allowed defenders Oguchi Onyewu and Corey Ashe and forwards Herculez Gomez and Jack McInerney to depart. (Should the U.S. advance, defender Omar Gonzalez will join for the semifinals.)
Johnson, with 53 caps to his name, is well acclimated to the international stage. Although Besler has made just seven international appearances — all this year — he isn’t worried about the awkward dynamic of joining an established group mid-tournament.
“It’s not that strange,” Besler said. “It might be a little bit of a challenge. These guys have set the tone, certainly, for this tournament. I’ve got to come in and catch up a little bit, but it shouldn’t be an issue.”
The Americans had few troubles in the group stage, cruising to a 3-0 record with 11 goals scored and two allowed. Stiff competition looms, however, with the U.S. and Mexico on a collision course for a fourth-straight Gold Cup final meeting.
Besler, whose anticipation and smooth distribution have earned him a starting place with the national team, figures to partner in central defense with Clarence Goodson or Michael Orozco Fiscal.
The speedy Johnson, meanwhile, likely will be competing with Jose Torres, Brek Shea and Edgar Castillo for a left flank spot. He also is an option to challenge the scorching Chris Wondolowski (six goals in four games) for playing time up top.
“For us, it’s always good to see new faces,” said veteran DaMarcus Beasley, the U.S. captain for the Gold Cup. “Obviously that’s the coach’s decision. He felt that we needed to bring in other people, which is great. It’s going to add a little more power to our team, which is always a plus.”
Even though Johnson said he wasn’t “at all” under the impression he’d be called up, the Seattle Sounders forward still watched every U.S. game in the group stage.
Besler, who knew a recall was possible but hadn’t communicated with Klinsmann until late Tuesday night, also reviewed the tape. And it didn’t take long for the Sporting Kansas City centerback to identify this U.S. team’s biggest obstacle.
“Our challenge is how to break teams down,” Besler said. “The teams have kind of sat back a little bit, so for us, we need to be sharp with the ball, move it quickly, and that’s I think when we found success.”
Despite having just two training sessions together before Sunday’s quarterfinal, Johnson is confident he and his fellow newcomers can integrate seamlessly into the group. Between this year’s qualifiers and the January camp he and Besler both took part in, there’s already plenty of chemistry to draw on.
Plus he’s learned the lesson that, in this profession, one has “to be ready at all times.”
“It’s a lot of familiar faces, a lot of guys that we’ve played together,” Johnson said. “I think we’ve got enough experience, and we’re professionals. At the end of the day, we know what the mentality is of putting on the American jersey and going out there and battling and doing what we’ve got to do to get a result.”