Since taking over as coach of the U.S. national team 2 1/2 years ago, Juergen Klinsmann has repeatedly preached the superiority of European soccer.
"When you watch Premier League, you watch the German Bundesliga or you watch Spanish football — Barcelona, Madrid — then you know the benchmark," he said.
But with this summer's World Cup less than 100 days away, Klinsmann has softened his tone a bit. Not that he's had much of a choice.
Because after the cream of Klinsmann's crop of European-based players was embarrassed during the U.S.'s 2-0 loss to Ukraine on Wednesday, it became apparent the team he will take to Brazil this summer will be dominated by players from Major League Soccer.
"It always kind of continues to improve. And it's a league that is getting better," U.S. captain Clint Dempsey, who played seven seasons in the English Premier League before returning to MLS last August, says of the U.S.-based league
"Some people, they want the opportunity to go and play in Europe. I was fortunate enough to get my professional start in MLS and I'm happy to come back. The game, the level, is definitely growing in MLS."
Which is why as many as 13 players on the U.S. World Cup team will come from MLS rosters, among them Dempsey and fellow midfielders Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan — the core of the American lineup — plus three of the four starting defenders.
The 1998 team, with 16 MLS players, was the only U.S. World Cup team that had more.
"Our job," Klinsmann said "is to zoom in and name 23 guys who are up to the task of the World Cup."
And eliminate those who aren't. With the MLS season opening this weekend, Klinsmann used last week's friendly in Cyprus as a final audition for some of his European-based players who are on the bubble for a World Cup invitation.
For many, that bubble burst.
Center back Oguchi Onyewu, who hasn't started for the U.S. since last summer's Gold Cup, rushed back from injury to play against Ukraine and was caught out of position on both goals, probably costing him a chance at a third World Cup. And left back Edgar Castillo and midfielder Sacha Kljestan were also ineffective in what was probably their last chance at making the team.
Still to be determined is whether the U.S. has squandered its momentum from last year, when it won a record 16 games, finished first in its World Cup qualifying tournament and averaged a national-team best 2.2 goals a game.
The Americans concluded the year with scoreless draw at Scotland and a loss to Austria, then opened this winter with a listless 2-0 win over a second-string South Korean team before imploding against Ukraine.
Jozy Altidore, who set another U.S. national-team record by scoring in five consecutive matches last summer, has scored once in his last six games with the U.S. and was not a factor against Ukraine. Donovan matched Altidore with a team-high eight goals for the national team last year, but only one of those came after July's CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Dempsey, who scored five times in his first five games for the U.S. in 2013, had one goal after June 2 — a slump that followed him to his club teams, where he scored once in 12 MLS games with Seattle last season before getting shut out completely during a two-month winter loan to Fulham of the EPL.
And then there's Bradley, who withdrew from the Ukraine game and now needs to prove his fitness because he hasn't played a competitive match since leaving Roma for Toronto FC three months ago.
When Bradley does play again it will be in MLS and not Italy.
The U.S. will get another chance to turn things around April 2 when an MLS-heavy team takes on Mexico in Phoenix, the last scheduled friendly before the preliminary World Cup roster is due in May.
For legendary Chelsea Coach Jose Mourinho, though, the recent U.S. slump is an aberration, not a trend. He expects the U.S. and its MLS players to be a dangerous group come summer.
"I see the American team — obviously not with incredible talent, but they have some good players playing in Europe and some good players in MLS — coming up day by day," Mourinho said last week in a Yahoo Sports video. "They are ready to create problems."
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