Most weeks, the U.S. national team winding up its preparation for a major tournament with foreign-soil friendlies against two of the three top finishers from the previous World Cup would be American soccer’s lead story.
Thanks to FIFA’s implosion, Saturday’s compelling UEFA Champions League final and the build up to the Women’s World Cup, normally marquee matchups with the Netherlands (Friday) and Germany (June 10) have been overshadowed. And the absence of so many key U.S. veterans guts the upcoming games a little bit more. Without his best squad, coach Jurgen Klinsmann is less likely to engineer a result that might steal a bit of the spotlight. These two matches will provide stiff tests for a team whose tactics still are taking shape and for several newer players still hoping to establish themselves on the U.S. depth chart.
“We want to see now throughout that whole year, what was the learning curve from those players that we gave that opportunity to? Where do they stand right now?” Klinsmann asked. “I think with these two games with Germany and with Holland, now we can kind of close the loop and say ‘OK, now we know where to put them in the ranking.’ Eventually, it’s down to naming a roster for the Gold Cup that is able to win that Gold Cup, and you have to kind of leave the transition phase or the experimentation phase on the side.”
So the tinkering must stop in July, but it isn’t July yet. If the next 180 minutes don’t help Klinsmann establish the combinations and chemistry that might pay off at the Gold Cup, they should at least allow him to draw some temporary conclusions about several players. Germany and the Netherlands don’t just represent the “cold water” to which Klinsmann frequently refers. This time, he said, it’s “freezing cold.”
Despite everything else going on in the world of soccer, we’ll be watching as Klinsmann looks to “close the loop,” starting Friday as the U.S. meets the Netherlands, bronze medalists last summer in Brazil, on Friday in Amsterdam.
Here’s what we’ll be watching, from the back to the front of the lineup:
Guzan's return to goal
Klinsmann doesn’t typically offer his players safe harbor, at least publicly. He wants them fighting and scratching for minutes, never settling or feeling that their position is a given. It was interesting, therefore, when the manager declared this week that Brad Guzan not only is the national team’s “No. 1” goalkeeper, but that it’s already been determined that the 30-year-old will man the nets at the Gold Cup.
Nick Rimando has started all five U.S. games this year and went 5-0-0 at the 2013 Gold Cup. He’s certainly not played himself out of the starting job and at 35, he’s not being brought in as a goalkeeper for the future.
Guzan, meanwhile, hasn’t played for the U.S. in more than six months and is coming off a tough end of the season at Aston Villa, where he was benched by manager Tim Sherwood.
He’s played only once in the past eight weeks and now will have to rediscover his form quickly, because the Gold Cup apparently awaits.
“He fights through [the benching at Villa] and he will be sharp and he will be hungry for the long summer,” Klinsmann said.
Center backs will get tested
Before his groin injury, Jermaine Jones was scheduled to move back into the U.S. midfield, the center back experiment having concluded. Klinsmann’s reasoning was that his team had “so many high-quality center backs” from which to choose. Those who started there at the World Cup—Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron—were left off the roster for the games in Holland and Germany, however, leaving the likes of John Brooks, Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco to contend with Robin van Persie and Co.
Brooks and Alvarado, each 22, are the likely starters and have 13 caps between them. They play at a high level week to week. Alvarado is a key contributor at Club América, the CONCACAF champion, and Brooks re-established his place at Hertha Berlin and helped the club narrowly escape relegation from the Bundesliga. But they’re untested internationally. Alvarado is new to the team and Brooks struggled during the March friendlies against Switzerland and Denmark.
Friday will be the start of a much stiffer test—one that Brooks and Alvarado (Michael Orozco is in the mix as well) will have to pass if either hopes to make a convincing argument that he’s a better option than the World Cup starters. The U.S. will get a break with Arjen Robben's absence, but the Dutch are hoping to make a statement of their own. The Oranje have been less than convincing under Guus Hiddink (3-4-1 since the World Cup) and are third in their 2016 European Championship qualifying group heading into a June 12 meeting with Latvia. The Dutch will be coming.
Michael Bradley's midfield partner
Michael Bradley isn’t a traditional playmaker, but his sense for tempo and his ability to unlock a defense with a killer pass makes him the best choice for the spot behind the forwards—at least as far as Klinsmann is concerned. But questions surrounding his ideal partner remain unanswered.
Since the World Cup, Klinsmann has tried out Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya—two offensively inclined players—along with Kyle Beckerman and Danny Williams, who are more traditional defensive midfielders. Williams has the least amount of international experience among that quartet but may prove to be the best long-term option. Williams, 26, wound up having a good season with Reading after overcoming his own injury issues and played well during the 1-1 tie in Switzerland.
The U.S. looked significantly more stable and composed with Williams behind Bradley than it has in other recent games against top-tier opposition and settled for the draw only after being reduced to 10 men. If Williams can successfully keep an eye on the likes of Memphis Depay out wide or even Wesley Sneijder in the middle, all while giving Bradley room to set the pace and create, Klinsmann may have found the combination he has sought.
Altidore, Dempsey replacements; Who steps up?
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have combined to score 67 international goals. The 19 field players at Klinsmann’s disposal in Amsterdam and Cologne have tallied a combined 36. The five forwards available have seven. The drop-off from Altidore and Dempsey, who will miss the upcoming friendlies (Altidore has a hamstring injury and Dempsey is awaiting the birth of his fourth child), is steep.
“Obviously we have Jozy that we rely on. We have Clint, who did his job for so many years. But we need the next generation of strikers to come in and score goals on a consistent basis. The key message really to Juan Agudelo, to an Aron Jóhannsson, to a Bobby Wood, to a Jordan Morris and all of these young, talented strikers … you’ve got to score goals on a consistent basis,” Klinsmann said.
Morris struck against Mexico in April but remains new on the senior international scene and joined the national team from the Toulon Tournament, where he played with the U.S. Under-23s.
Agudelo, who also scored that night in San Antonio, is making his return after a three-year absence and Gyasi Zardes certainly isn’t accustomed to playing agianst the likes of Holland and Germany. Bobby Wood, who spent the spring at relegated 2. Bundesliga club Erzgebirge Aue, has shown little in his six U.S. appearances.
That leaves Jóhannsson, who’s been unlucky with injuries over the past year but finally seems to be healthy and hitting his stride. He scored four goals in his final three matches with AZ Alkmaar and struck against Denmark in March before missing the Switzerland game. He's skillful, unpredictable on and off the ball and can create his own chances, and on Friday he may be more comfortable than his teammates against familiar opposition.
This is Jóhannsson’s chance to give Dempsey and Altidore some company at the top of the depth chart.