Lletget, Zimmerman hope to climb U.S. depth chart ahead of WCQs, Gold Cup
CARSON, Calif. -- As the lone remaining uncapped player on the U.S. national team roster for Friday's friendly against Jamaica, FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman knows that his chances of sticking with the squad for next month's critical World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama are slim. After all, U.S. coach Bruce Arena has gone to pains to remind just about everyone -- fans, media and his own players -- that with passage to Russia 2018 on the line, the two March games will not be used to test fresh talent.
"He's said that," Zimmerman told ESPN FC before the Americans travelled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to face the Reggae Boyz. "But at the same time, I'm going to try and put my best foot forward to make it onto the qualifying roster. That's my mentality."
Zimmerman isn't the only reserve hoping to use the match at Finley Stadium as a chance to climb the U.S. depth chart. Arena has promised several changes to a lineup that was held to a 0-0 draw by Serbia on Sunday in San Diego. It almost certainly means a debut for Zimmerman and longer auditions for midfielders Sebastian Lletget and Chris Pontius and left-back Jorge Villafana, who made their first national team appearances off the bench against the Serbs.
Lletget, in particular, impressed.
"He didn't look out of his depth at all," said longtime U.S. striker Jozy Altidore regarding Lletget, whose seeing-eye cross to Sacha Kljestan early in the second half created one of the match's best-scoring chances. "He's a really good two-way player."
Lletget replaced club teammate Jermaine Jones in Sunday's match and could fill the veteran's central midfield spot against Jamaica after Jones returned to the Galaxy. Some have even speculated that another good performance by Lletget could win him the job against Honduras given that Jones is suspended.
Considering the magnitude of the match and that he'll have just 135 minutes, maximum, of international experience at that point, that's probably a long shot. Still, there's no doubt that after being repeatedly ignored by former U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann during the past two years, 24-year-old Lletget has been one of the big winners of the year-opening camp so far. His familiarity with former Galaxy boss Arena hasn't hurt.
"Coming into camp, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't as nervous as I would've been if any other manager had been in charge," said Lletget, who emerged as an MLS standout under Arena after a frustrating five-year spell with English Premier League mainstay West Ham ended without a top-flight appearance.
"But once I got here and shook everyone's hand, I kind of fell back into the old ways of how we used to do things and our relationship on and off the field. I think that helped me settle in quicker. And in a weird way, maybe this is best."
As patient as Lletget had to be for his opportunity, his wait was nothing compared to the wait that Pontius endured. The Philadelphia Union winger's first U.S. invite came seven years ago under then-coach Bob Bradley, but he never saw the field. Klinsmann summoned him twice, but a broken leg and torn groin prevented him from reporting.
"I told people I didn't think I was going to play again because of injuries, so to finally put on that jersey was amazing," said 29-year-old Pontius, who narrowly missed a chance to win Sunday's match on a 90th-minute shot. "Hopefully I can play a little bit more free in this next game. I think I was a bit tense."
Among all the reserves, the idea is to leave a lasting impression on Arena on the road to Russia. After next month, there's another set of qualifiers in June and then the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July, for which most of the first-teamers won't be available. And if history is any indication, at least one newcomer from this camp will become a regular the way players like Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, Gyasi Zardes and Graham Zusi have done in the past.
"Every player's dream is to play for their national team," said 23-year-old Zimmerman. "This is where you're trying to be, and this is where you're trying to stay. That's the more important thing. It's one thing to get called into camp but it's another thing to get called back. That's the goal going into Friday."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.