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Jun 5, 2014

After controversy, Chandler focuses on the U.S.

United States international Timothy Chandler has signed a 3-year deal with Eintracht Frankfurt.

There has always been a bit of mystery surrounding Timothy Chandler.

When he debuted for the U.S. national team against Argentina back in 2011, he had only been a professional for a few months. But the way he played on that night - displaying speed, power, and an ability to get forward as a right back - offered a tantalizing glimpse of what he could offer.

What ensued after was the soccer version of "He's Just Not That Into You", or at least that's the way it looked.

The son of a U.S. serviceman and German mother, Chandler was still eligible to play for both countries. And his decision to play in the occasional U.S. friendly, but not in official matches that could have permanently cap-tied him, led to questions about how committed he was to the U.S. cause and if his heart really belonged to his native Germany. Even after appearing in a World Cup qualifier against Honduras in February of 2013, Chandler didn't play again for the remainder of qualifying. Injuries played a part, but it didn't lessen the skepticism surrounding him.

As Chandler sat in the team hotel during the side's training stint in Stanford, California, he maintained his stance that there was never any doubt about where his allegiance lay.

"I only wanted to play for the USA," he said. "You don't know how often the chance comes, to be in a World Cup. That's why I'm proud and happy to be with this team."

Chandler's soccer roots lie mainly in his hometown of Frankfurt. His parents split up when he was just 4 years old, and Chandler saw his father, Jerome, for the last time shortly thereafter. So it was left to Chandler's mother, Sabine, to raise him and his two siblings. Chandler's grandfather, Siegfried Buchman, proved to be a critical presence in his life, and introduced him to soccer. It was those informal games in the backyard that provided the youngster with his initial inspiration, and appreciation.

"It was tough for them," said Chandler of his mother and grandfather. "That's why I thank them a lot for what they do for me. Now I try to give them something back, you know? But you can't give back with just money what my mom and my grandpa did for me. My mom, she was alone with three kids, so it was not so easy for her."

Timothy Chandler was a surprise selection when Jurgen Klinsmann named him to the USA's World Cup team.
Timothy Chandler was a surprise selection when Jurgen Klinsmann named him to the USA's World Cup team.

After spending his youth career with Eintracht Frankfurt, Chandler joined F.C. Nurnberg's reserve team in 2010, where he was converted from a midfielder to right back. Chandler's early performances caught the eye of Fasil Yemane, a former Nurnberg youth player and friend of U.S. international Tony Sanneh. Aware of Chandler's American background, Yemane called up Sanneh to inquire as to the level of U.S. interest. Yemane remembered there was considerable skepticism on Sanneh's part.

"Tony said, 'Hey, we're talking about the national team. You think we take an amateur player from Nurnberg?'" Yemane recalled. "I told him, 'At the moment he's amateur. Wait until he plays first team.' He says, 'Ah, Fasil. When he plays first team, call me.'"

Sanneh didn't have to wait long. Six months after arriving at the club, Chandler was offered a professional contract, and made his Bundesliga debut against Freiburg on Jan. 22, 2011. As his first team appearances increased, Sanneh put Chandler on the radar of then-U.S. manager Bob Bradley, and his aforementioned appearance against Argentina followed that March.

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"I told my friends, and they were telling me if I played against Messi that it would be unbelievable," said Chandler. "Everything happened in three months. I played in the Bundesliga, was in the first XI all the time. I go to national team. It was a great experience."

With the U.S. backline in need of reinforcements, Chandler seemed a lock to be on the roster for that summer's Gold Cup. At which point, the conflicting priorities of club and country began to emerge. Given that Chandler was coming off his first professional season, Nurnberg insisted the player needed rest, and was in no mood to accommodate the wishes of him or Bradley.

"Nurnberg just put incredible pressure on him," said Bradley about Chandler. "They told him, 'You know what? You owe us. The bottom line is we don't want you playing, and if you play it's going to affect you next season here.' When you have a young guy, and he's just breaking through into the first team in the Bundesliga, that pressure, you don't always know how to handle it."

Chandler declined the call-up for the Gold Cup, the first of several refusals to link up up with U.S. side. Even after Jurgen Klinsmann replaced Bradley as U.S. manager later that year, Chandler continued to keep the U.S. at arm's length, and rumors that Germany was interested in bringing its native son into the national team fold began to emerge. At the time, Germany was short of options at right back, and the word on the street - later denied by the DFB, the German football federation - was that they were looking at Chandler as a potential solution. Opinions vary as to how interested Germany was, and vice versa.

"I never thought that was true," said Bradley of the possibility Chandler would play for Germany. "I think Chandler got put in a bad spot and didn't know how to handle it. It just took time for him to mature and deal with everything."

Sanneh contends that it was Nurnberg that put the possibility of a Germany call-up in Chandler's mind in a bid to stave off his eventual commitment to the U.S. team, the better to minimize the wear and tear that comes from the travel involved.

"His club obviously wanted him to play for [Germany]," he said. "They're supporting him. That's natural. These are difficult decisions for any guy, especially someone his age coming up so quickly."

The awkward dance between Chandler and the U.S. continued right up until the World Cup qualifier against Honduras that opened the final round Hexagonal, and it was noticed in the U.S. locker room.

"I think that before the Honduras game, Chandler has too much stuff in his head," said U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones. "Everyone was talking, 'He plays for America; he plays for Germany.'"

With Chandler having recently returned to his hometown club, Eintracht Frankfurt, he acknowledged the extensive tug-of-war that took place, as well as Nurnberg's pleas for him to consider playing for Germany.

"It wasn't confusing for me," he insisted in a subsequent phone interview. "Nurnberg told me [about playing for Germany], but I discussed it with my mom and my girlfriend and I don't take it in my head. I always make my own decisions."

That ultimately meant playing for the U.S. against Honduras. Performing in brutally hot conditions, the U.S. lost 2-1. Chandler struggled, as did the whole team, and while he was thereafter tied to the U.S. squad, Klinsmann declined to bring him back, citing a need for greater commitment. A pair of knee injuries also stunted Chandler's progress.

A knee sprain ruled him out of last summer's run of three World Cup qualifiers, then in February in a match against Bayern Munich, Chandler suffered a meniscus injury that looked set to sideline him for an extended spell.

"Everything in my head said, 'S***. I can't play this season, I can't play World Cup,'" he said. "I have to wait maybe four years more. It was very hard. But I was always in contact with Klinsmann, and he always give me confidence. He say, 'C'mon, you can come back, you can come back.'"

Such was Klinsmann's faith that he even put Chandler in touch with a knee specialist in Germany. The extra attention paid off. The normal recovery period was 3-4 months. Chandler was back playing for Nurnberg after 10 weeks. When combined with his performances over the entire club season, Klinsmann was convinced that not only did Chandler have the physical talent, but also the maturity to be a contributor.

"He's a different Timmy now then he was a year-and-a-half ago," Klinsmann said to reporters following the U.S. roster announcement. "I think some players go maybe earlier through that learning process, some go late. At least, he went through it."

Jones added, "I think now Chandler is free. He knows he will play for the national team of America. He's completely concentrated for the World Cup."

Of course, the air of mystery surrounding Chandler hasn't completely disappeared. Playing left back instead of his preferred right back slot, Chandler delivered a subpar performance against Turkey. But given the brutal playing conditions that Brazil is likely to serve up, he'll be needed as the U.S. attempts to navigate its way past Ghana, Portugal, and Germany.

Chandler said, "I think our team, we always stick together, and that helps us on the field."

Now he's ready to be a part of it.