Thursday November 10th, 2011

When the U.S. meets France in a high-profile friendly on Friday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2,, Univisión), it's probably a good thing that it'll take place in the Stade de France, the futuristic spaceship of a stadium outside Paris, instead of at the venerable Parc des Princes on the west side of town. U.S. fans have enough bad memories from the latter stadium, where Germany spanked the U.S. 2-0 in World Cup '98 and the final goal was scored by none other than current U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

But the Stade de France? It's hard not to love that place. I'll go to my grave with the memories of being there on the night in '98 when France won the World Cup: the haunting beauty of an entire stadium singing La Marseillaise, the deafening roar when Zinédine Zidane scored twice with his head, and the stunned silence of the Brazilian fans who thought victory was guaranteed. (People forget how big a surprise it was that France won that game, even on home soil.)

The U.S. has never played in the Stade de France and in fact hasn't played France at all since two friendlies in 1979 that the Americans lost by a combined score of 9-0. The circumstances will be a lot different on Friday, though. The U.S. has been in six straight World Cups and advanced to the knockout stage in two of the past three, but the Americans have cratered since South Africa 2010 and are attempting to rebuild under Klinsmann.

Ben Lyttleton: Blanc to experiment against U.S.

France, for its part, has struggled since Zidane's 2006 retirement. Les Bleus imploded in acrimony in South Africa, failing to advance past the group stage, and new coach Laurent Blanc (a defensive stalwart of the '98 team) has been charged with returning France to glory. Blanc has some fabulous individual talents to work with -- including Franck Ribéry, Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, Florent Malouda, Patrice Evra and Youann Gourcuff -- but France has still been up and down, waiting until the final qualifier to seal its ticket for Euro 2012 ahead of Bosnia.

The U.S. and France have both brought close to their top squads for this game, but there will be a few absences: Landon Donovan pulled out of the U.S. roster in advance of his appearance in next week's MLS Cup final, while France is missing Nasri (knee inflammation), Evra (given a rest), Gourcuff (not called in after returning from injury) and defender Éric Abidal (who was allowed to play for Barcelona in a Copa del Rey game Wednesday).

Still, there will be plenty of star power on hand. Blanc can include Ribéry, Benzema, Malouda, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and an attacking group that might include Marvin Martin, Kévin Gameiro, Loïc Remy or Jérémy Ménez. Here are four of my thoughts leading into the game, leading with:

The U.S. lineup. My sense from the start has been that Klinsmann would be better off opting for a 4-1-3-2 and pairing Jozy Altidore with another forward, and that finally happened last month with the move of Clint Dempsey in a supporting forward role. Here's my best guess:

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard.

No surprise here, though it's a good sign for No. 2 Bill Hamid that he keeps getting called in.

Defenders: Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, Timmy Chandler.

The big question here is who will pair with Bocanegra in the central defense. Possibilities include Onyewu, Clarence Goodson and Michael Orozco Fiscal. I'm leaning toward Onyewu, who has revived his career with Sporting Lisbon and showed well in his return for the U.S. last month. But I wouldn't rule out Goodson or even Orozco Fiscal, who's under more pressure than ever to show that he belongs here given Klinsmann's insistence on ignoring 23-year-old MLS Defender of the Year Omar González.

Holding midfielder: Kyle Beckerman.

Don't be surprised if Klinsmann opts for the Real Salt Lake man again. Beckerman needs to be more consistent in his link play offensively, but the coach loves the way he wins balls and breaks up attacks. For those who think Beckerman is playing here in place of Michael Bradley, my sense is that Klinsmann considers the real choice to be between Bradley and Maurice Edu farther upfield.

Midfielders: Fabian Johnson, Michael Bradley, Brek Shea.

A couple of big questions here. First, can Bradley regain a starting spot after not winning one in either game last month? It sure seems likely, considering how well Bradley has settled in as a starter in Serie A. That said, we still might see Edu instead. With Donovan out on the right, I'm going with Johnson, the latest German-American who could make his U.S. debut. Johnson can play in a number of positions, and this is one of them, although I suppose it's possible that we could see Robbie Rogers here instead. Rogers and Orozco Fiscal are the biggest head-scratchers on the U.S. roster, and yet both could see time in this game.

Forwards: Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore.

It's unfortunate that Klinsmann won't have Dempsey and Donovan on the same field in any of his first seven games in charge, but it is what it is. The onus here is on Dempsey and Altidore to work together better than they did last month and, of course, to score some goals. The biggest worry of the Klinsmann era isn't one win in his first five friendlies, it's that the team has scored only two goals in 10 halves of play so far. That needs to change.

France's back line might be vulnerable. Even at full strength, the French defense hasn't looked good in recent games, and the absence of fullbacks Abidal and Evra means the starters may well be right back Anthony Réveillère, center backs Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami and left back Jérémy Mathieu. If the U.S. can get the ball (and, yes, that's a big if), there may well be opportunities.

Will Blanc bring out the big guns? Midfielders Malouda and Yohan Cabaye are carrying knocks and may be question marks, and it's possible that Blanc will save his best possible lineup for Tuesday's game against Belgium. Word is that against the U.S. he may give a start to forward Olivier Giroud, a newcomer who's scoring regularly in Ligue 1 for Montpellier these days. Neither Ribéry nor Benzema were with the French team last month, so you'd think they'd get at least some time on the field this week.

Can the U.S. exceed expectations? My guess is a one-goal loss wouldn't be the worst thing for this U.S. team, but regardless of the result, it would be nice for Klinsmann's team to exceed expectations for once. That hasn't happened yet in his first five games, and it's a real cause for concern. U.S. fans are generally sophisticated enough these days to know that results aren't the be-all end-all right now. But they do want to see improvement, and Friday's game against France is a golden opportunity.

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