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One USMNT fan favorite got his chance in the starting lineup in Christian Pulisic, but fans are still waiting for midfielder Darlington Nagbe to get his shot.
Fans have been calling for Pulisic to start matches since he was first called up to the national team for March’s World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala. During this past summer’s Copa America, not only were fans calling for Pulisic to start games but also Nagbe. Even when the U.S. was winning games, fans wanted to see Nagbe starting.
The logic was simple: Klinsmann was relying on veterans who weren’t going to help the team long term, Nagbe represented the future and Klinsmann should start giving him chances.
However, looking to the future isn’t exactly Klinsmann’s job. Yes, he wears two hats with U.S. Soccer, and as technical director his job is to prepare for the future, but as the manager his job is to win games right now.
If your job is to win games right now, you play the best players you have available. It doesn’t matter if Jermaine Jones is 34 years old, if he’s your best option today, you play him today.
That’s the job of an international manager. His job is not to throw a player like Nagbe on the field time and time again and wait for him to catch on. Rather it’s the player’s job to wait for his chance and once he gets it, make himself undroppable in the manager’s eye.
There’s no denying Nagbe had a fantastic run in the MLS Cup playoffs last year to lead the Portland Timbers to the MLS Cup. That run earned him a call up to the national team, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to throw him onto the field. He now has to earn his way onto the field in training by waiting his chance. In international soccer, waiting for a chance often means waiting for a player ahead of you to get injured or miss a match through suspension. That’s just the way it works, but when the manager calls your name you need to show him that he can’t take you off the field.
Take England’s Marcus Rashford, for example. Eight months ago no one had ever heard of him. He got his chance at Manchester United not because Louis van Gaal thought he deserved it, but because Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, and Will Keane all went down with injuries. Rashford immediately put on performance after performance that made him undroppable for Louis van Gaal. Then-England-manager Roy Hodgson couldn’t ignore him and took him along to Euro 2016. When England’s new boss Sam Allardyce decided to drop him for his first match in charge, Rashford made him look silly by picking up a hat trick in his U-21 debut. Allardyce won’t be able to ignore him for long.
Sacha Kljestan is the latest player to take advantage of an opportunity. Kljestan hadn’t appeared for the USMNT since March of 2014 and just a week ago I wrote that his recall was bizarre. Kljestan got his chance due to an injury to Jermaine Jones and a suspension to Michael Bradley. When he got on the field last week against St. Vincent he seized the opportunity, putting on a one-goal, two-assist performance that essentially forced Klinsmann to start him against Trinidad & Tobago. In that match Kljestan was sensational again, cementing his spot on the roster when the U.S. begins the Hex in November.
Fans want to see Nagbe and are growing annoyed that Klinsmann won’t give him his chance. The truth is, he’s had chances, he just hasn’t done anything with them. Nagbe came on as a sub as a few times in the Copa America and failed to have any impact on the game.
A week ago when Klinsmann remarked on how he was disappointed that the younger players weren’t knocking on the door to push the older players out, it was performances like Nagbe’s that he was talking about. Performances like the ones Kljestan put on over the last two games were exactly what Klinsmann was asking for.
It sounds harsh to say but at this moment Nagbe’s national team chance may have already passed him by. When the full team reconvenes in November, Jones will be back in the mix, and the spot on the roster that was occupied by Nagbe will likely belong to Kljestan.
That’s not to say Nagbe will never get another shot; he’ll likely feature in next summer’s Gold Cup. But if he wants a future with the USMNT, the next time he gets a shot he better make the most of it.