The Full 90

Assessing Sporting KC's U.S. national team prospects

One of the questions I get asked most often: "When will (Sporting Kansas City Player X) get a national team call-up?"

"Sporting KC Player X" tends to be either Graham Zusi, Chance Myers, Matt Belser or C.J. Sapong. It usually depends on who is asking or which player just had a decent game. (I've not heard it applied to Seth Sinovic so far.)

I think national team call-ups operate an awful lot like top-division college football. Both are extremely subjective and, as such, are left open to a lot of reasonable/unreasonable argument.

In college football, certain teams have built in advantages -- some even come


the season even starts. A team that starts the season highly rated (based on compound matrices like history of success, strength of recruiting and number of wack-as-heck uniform combinations*), plays in a highly visible conference/time-zone and finishes undefeated is far more likely to play for the national championship than a team that started ranked lower, plays in a lesser conference/time-zone and finishes undefeated.

*I can neither prove or disprove that this is a criteria for pre-season voters.

It's the Boise State phenomenon. In 2009, Boise State went 14-0 and beat an undefeated TCU (who also fit this bill) in a BCS bowl, but wound up


in the final poll. That season, Boise State started the year ranked #14 in the AP Top 25 (#16 in USA Today). TCU started #16 in both polls. Alabama and Texas, the two teams that played for the national title started #2 and #5, respectively (in both polls).

Sure both Alabama and Texas had to win all of their games to play for the title, but as long as they stayed higher ranked than Boise State (and/or TCU), they would play for the championship game.

That's how the national team pool works too. Results on the field are often trumped by pre-ordained advantages.

Instead of pre-season ratings, the player equivalent is "was he part of the U.S. youth program (U-16/U-18/U-20/U-23 etc)?"

Instead of "highly visible conference/time-zone," it's "does he play in Europe?" Or, more recently, "is he a dual-German citizen?" There is an added parallel: Playing in Europe, like playing in the SEC, is far more difficult than playing in the MLS/Mountain West.

Players with youth national team experience on European teams start higher than their un-experienced MLS counterparts. It's just the way it works.

Jurgen Klinsman took over this summer and has shown an interest in calling up a lot of new blood to get a look at them (among them our own Teal Bunbury, as well as German-born sons of servicemen like Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler or Danny Williams). But he's still relying on a player pool that, mostly, was determined more by the past and mailing address than almost any other factor.*

*There's an added parallel here: Like college football, the teams that start higher ranked and play in more visible conferences are often drastically better teams. The same works in this analogy: Players based in Europe tend to more talented/better trained than MLS players. Clint Dempsey is an SEC school. Brek Shea is Boise State. Kyle Beckerman is Houston.

I don't expect Klinsman to ignore the MLS-based talent; but I do expect he'll continue to favor European-trained players when it comes friendlies and World Cup Qualifying.

However, MLS-based players will have a chance to show the U.S. coaches what they're missing during the January national team camp. The camp, which is referred, sometimes derisively, to as

"Camp Cupcake"

is stocked with players who have been overlooked in the past. Since European leagues are in full force in January, MLS players tend to make up most of the camp participants.

If Sporting Kansas City Player X is going to get to see how he looks in red, white and blue, he probably needs to be part of this camp.

So, which Sporting KC players will get that call?

Besides Bunbury, the only American with a cap on Sporting's roster in Davy Arnaud. And his national teams are mostly behind him. (His ceiling was a spot on the 2009 Gold Cup team.)

Note: I'm focusing on the American call-ups today. There are many Sporting players who have represented/still represent their national teams. Omar Bravo has more than 60 caps for Mexico, Roger Espinoza represented Honduras in the 2010 World Cup, Jimmy Nielsen never got a senior Denmark call-up but did play both U-17/U-21, Peterson Joseph plays for Haiti, Shavar Thomas captains Jamaica and Craig Rocastle recently was capped for Grenada.

I'll rank the remaining KC players by whom I think has the best chance of actually entering the player pool -- that doesn't mean regular call-ups, but it does mean regular camps. I'm assuming that Bunbury is already slotted in the forward mix and will be part of the U.S. Olympic team.

1. Matt Besler

While he probably has the roughest climb -- not only was he not part of any youth U.S. team, he's behind Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez in the "good MLS defender with national team upside" list -- I think he will impress coaches the most in a camp setting. He's got decent speed (former left back, remember), is a work-out warrior, is a better distributer than you think and has a unique weapon (the long throw). If he doesn't get a January call-up, I'd be shocked.

In order to have a long-term future with the national team, though, Besler needs an MLS Defender of the Year season (or three) soon. (He also might need to move to New York or LA. I keed. I keed.)

2. C.J. Sapong

I feel bad for C.J. -- he just missed the U-23 age cutoff by a mere five days. He would've been a lock for the U-23 team and, hence, the Olympics. Instead, he'll have to earn it the hard way. Of course, the "hard" way means showing the U.S. coaches that he can be a younger and more athletically imposing version of Edson Buddle. He should get a call in January with an eye toward the future.

I'm almost certain that Sapong will get capped in his career -- 10 past Americans who won MLS Rookie of the Year have a least one international appearance.

3. Chance Myers

While Timmy Chandler and Steve Cherundolo are the presumptive staring fullbacks, the group behind them is rather unimpressive (Eric Lichaj, Jonathan Spector, et al). Myers could build upon his break-out year (I think he's the best attacking fullback in MLS right now) by having a great camp. He should definitely be given the chance -- see what I did there?

Like Besler, he needs another year and a Best XI appearance or two.

4. Graham Zusi

The problem with Zusi is that I don't know who he replaces. Michael Bradley? Maurice Edu? Jermaine Jones? Fabian Johnson? Stuart Holden -- if healthy?

I think Zusi behind that group for certain. He's also behind Kyle Beckerman, even though I'm not sure Beckerman is that much better than Zusi. He's probably in line or ahead of Jeff Larentowicz and Sasha Kjlestan (though both were called up in October). I would guess Zusi get a call in January, but will need a really impressive camp and another big year (or two) to break into regular duty.

5. Seth Sinovic

Here's an interesting one: He doesn't do anything great (which should, you know, be a requisite for national team duty) but he's a very capable left back. Last time I checked, that's been a huge issue for the United States.

As much as I like the way he plays, his national team chances are only fractionally higher than mine.

As for long-term prospects, goalkeeper Jon Kempin is part of the U-23 camp going on in Duisburg, Germany, right now. He will have a shot at making the Olympic squad in 2012.

Forward Soony Saad has just one cap for U-20 team and, unless he transforms into a dangerous poacher in the next year or two, will likely get buried behind the likes of Bunbury, Juan Agudelo, Omar Salgado, Bobby Wood, Conor Doyle, Josh Gatt, et al.