For the United States men's national team, the past four months have often been turbulent, occasionally inspiring and always mercurial. Electing to play a pair of friendlies against Belgium (ESPN2/WatchESPN, Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET) and Germany (ESPN2/WatchESPN, Sunday 2 p.m. ET), two of Europe's most talent-soaked teams, might not be the most advisable course ahead of a crucial three-game span of World Cup qualifying. Yet Jurgen Klinsmann wouldn't want it any other way.
As he prepares to lead his team in Cleveland against a Belgium squad stacked with such Premier League talent as Vincent Kompany, Marouane Fellaini and Christian Benteke, Klinsmann was in a pugnacious mood. "Belgium are one of the rising teams in Europe," he said. "The more challenging, the better it is. If we play weaker teams to build our confidence, we will get a pretty big shock against Jamaica [June 7]," he added. "I always prefer to play against the best teams out there because that is who we will play against in Brazil."
Wednesday night's game will be the first of five games that the USMNT will play in the next two weeks, and the German coach acknowledged he is not able to pick from a full squad, with the end of the European season depriving him of key talent. Among those missing are Michael Bradley, who played for Roma in Sunday's Coppa Italia final, and the swashbuckling Steve Cherundolo, who requested a break to recuperate as he prepares to peak ahead of the World Cup. Maurice Edu and Brek Shea also have been ruled out.
For Klinsmann, the two games offer a chance to test "players who have opportunities to prove things to us," and Sacha Kljestan is one such player. The Anderlecht midfielder just won his second consecutive Belgian league title, and Klinsmann announced he will start alongside Jermaine Jones on Wednesday night. "Sacha has had to swallow a couple of pills while I am here [as manager], but he deserves to be part of the team ... playing against his home country."
For his part, Kljestan was realistic about the nature of his opportunity. "I'm fortunate that Michael is not here so that now I get a chance to play, but if it happens that Michael or Jermaine pick up a suspension at some point through qualifying, I want to prove to the coaches that I'm able to step in and do the job in the middle of the field."
Klinsmann called the task of piecing together the USMNT "a puzzle we always work on that is challenging yet fascinating" and acknowledged that question marks still remain "at midfield, up front, with the center backs and right back." The German coach recognized the frenetic quality of the player turnover within the U.S. organization as he approaches a summer packed with the dual campaign of World Cup qualification and Gold Cup play. "There is always an in and out [here] as opposed to with a European team," he explained.
DaMarcus Beasley is a player who has benefited from the mixing-and-matching squad policy. The 30-year-old is expected to win his milestone 100th cap against Belgium, a feat that has taken him 12 years to achieve and has perhaps been possible only due to his own personal renaissance since moving to Puebla in 2011. "Beasley surprises himself sometimes," Klinsmann said. "We know he can compete on the highest level, but his career has been up-and-down. What we like about him is he can challenge himself and is not content on what he did in the past. He is always looking for the next thing."
"It's been a great ride," Beasley acknowledged, "a little bumpy perhaps." Sixteen members of the Beasley family will make the three-hour drive from Indiana to watch the game, and the veteran admitted to an unusually high level of nerves. "I am not normally a nervous guy," he said. "I just want to go out and play and hope the whole 100-cap thing goes out of the window because I am putting a lot of pressure on myself. I don't want to make any mistakes and want to ensure we get a good result in my 100th game."
Another player with much to prove is Stuart Holden. The 27-year-old has recently returned from a series of devastating injuries, joining the national team for the first time since October 2010. Klinsmann talked about the Bolton player's return with relish, explaining that "there is a chance for Stu Holden to play, but we want to pick up his pace and see where he is really at. He is right now at a stage in which he just needs a flow of training, hard sessions to measure himself against the elite group.
“He is a very positive personality, but he knows he is coming from a difficult time period of one and a half years of injury. He can only win here. He cannot lose. There is no pressure or stress on him."
"It has been a long road but a good one," Holden explained. "It feels so good to be back. After all the ups and downs I believe I can become a better player -- stronger and quicker -- all the clichés, but I honestly feel I have had time to reflect how lucky I am to be a footballer, and I don’t want to waste a minute." The midfielder, who has had three operations on his knee, described his return as making him "feel like a kid on my first day at school. I am just so excited to see old faces, new faces and integrate myself."
Holden has played very little for his club team in recent months, but with key World Cup qualifiers upcoming against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, his creative ability to penetrate and beat a man could be critical on a squad that lacks Landon Donovan. As such, his attitude was representative of many of the U.S. players approaching Wednesday night as he admitted he was eager to make an impact. "Jurgen has said he will evaluate me, and I hope I can surprise him with where I am at," he said. "If he sees me as a player who can have a big role in Gold Cup, so be it, but if I can force my way in and play in the Hex games, I would like to make that decision difficult for him."
Belgian national team manager Marc Wilmots, a cantankerous figure who has maintained the glorious nickname "Warpig" earned during his playing days, gave little away ahead of the game. Sparing in his news conference comments, a style reminiscent of Bob Bradley's, he revealed little about his lineup plans, acknowledging only that he ranked Jozy Altidore, Jones and Clint Dempsey as the most threatening Americans.
The Red Devils have come to the U.S. to prepare ahead of a crucial World Cup qualifier against Serbia on June 7. A Belgian staffer explained they had come here for the combination of warm weather and anonymity that it provides their players.
The squad trained and bonded at Rutgers University, making time to pay tribute at Ground Zero. On Tuesday afternoon, they trained with full force at FirstEnergy Stadium. Expect the team to play what amounts to a full-strength 11 for the first 45 minutes, a possession-hungry side that should test the depth of the United States' midfield to the limit.