What can we learn from USMNT's pre-Copa friendly vs. Puerto Rico?
The Copa América Centenario doesn’t kick off until June 3, and the U.S. national team is building toward the competition gradually. First it's this week's ongoing “transition camp” in Miami featuring a combination of Copa hopefuls and seven younger, ineligible players, which is then followed by Sunday’s friendly in Bayamón, Puerto Rico (12 p.m. ET, FS1, UniMas).
The U.S. and Puerto Rico, despite their proximity and political and cultural ties, have never met on the field. El Huracán Azul, currently ranked 152nd, hasn’t advanced far enough in World Cup or Gold Cup qualifying and isn’t the sort of opponent the Americans usually seek for a friendly. But with members of the Copa América team (scheduled to be unveiled Saturday afternoon) trickling in slowly, Klinsmann had to find a way to keep those already in camp fresh and motivated. Puerto Rico fit the bill.
“We are doing this week in Miami and finishing off the week with a game in Puerto Rico because it’s really important in terms of transitioning our players coming in from Europe and some who are already done in Mexico to keep them in a flow, to keep them in a rhythm,” Klinsmann said last week. “One of our lessons from last year’s Gold Cup was because the tournament was pushed into July, we couldn’t transition our European-based players and some of the Mexican players perfectly.”
MLS players on the final Copa roster won’t arrive until after this weekend’s games. And there are three men on the preliminary 40-man squad involved in the Liga MX semifinals. The absence of U.S. cornerstones like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, not to mention injuries suffered by the recovering Fabian Johnson (groin) and Geoff Cameron (hamstring), make it difficult for Klinsmann to test tactics or combinations in Bayamón.
The opponent’s lack of Copa quality—the team is composed largely of players from Puerto Rico’s six-team domestic league and U.S. colleges—also makes Sunday’s game the furthest thing from a tournament dress rehearsal. Puerto Rico has played only six times in the past year. (Among the players American fans may recognize are Tampa Bay Rowdies defender Jeremy Hall, who’s played for five MLS teams, and San Antonio FC midfielder Manolo Sanchez, who spent 2015 with the New York Red Bulls. Both are uncapped U.S. natives.)
Instead, for the U.S. players going to the Copa, the match is about establishing a bit of rhythm and maintaining fitness. For those called into camp only to help their teammates prepare, it’s a small reward. Gleaning much more from this unique friendly will be difficult.
“You want them to have something to look forward to,” Klinsmann told reporters this week in Miami. “We obviously want to have a good result. We want to get them into a flow and we don’t want to interrupt their rhythm that they have right now with coming from Europe or from Liga MX. This is why its so important to play in Puerto Rico.”
Klinsmann’s Copa squad will commence training next week in Dallas ahead of friendlies against Ecuador (May 25) and Bolivia (May 28). Those games will be about getting ready for the June 3 opener vs. Colombia.
Meanwhile, here’s what we’ll be watching for on Sunday:
Klinsmann’s decision about whether to anoint Tim Howard or Brad Guzan as his Copa América starter—or his decision to avoid naming a permanent No. 1—will be a significant story line over the next month. Guzan assumed the role while Howard was on international sabbatical and played relatively well, even though the U.S. was unable to win the 2015 Gold Cup with the Aston Villa man in net. Once Howard returned he assumed a place alongside Guzan on the depth chart. They split starting duties in last November’s World Cup qualifiers and then again in March during the home-and-home against Guatemala.
One might assume that Klinsmann will name a starter ahead of the Colombia game in order to avoid the constant questions and headaches. While Guzan likely entered the 2014 World Cup assuming he’d be the back-up, he won’t be content to watch this summer. He’s six years younger than Howard and surely feels he’s paid his dues. But Howard, the primary No. 1 for most of the past nine years (minus his year away), appears to be in no mood to yield.
"In hindsight I probably shouldn't have taken the year off. By making that decision, I gave people questions they actually didn't have. That paled in comparison to what I got from taking the year off, but the smart thing to do would have been to not take it,” Howard told ESPN. “My mentality has never been to be a No. 2. I think that's what's gotten me to this point. I'm a No. 1 goalkeeper even if I don't play on a certain day.”
Unless Klinsmann platoons the pair on Sunday, the friendly will provide a glimpse into which one has taken the lead two weeks before the tournament.
This is the spot on the field that should most resemble the Copa team. Three tournament shoo-ins will be in Puerto Rico—John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Cameron—along with players like Michael Orozco and Tim Ream who have decent shots.
Klinsmann very well may opt not to use Cameron while the Stoke City starter is returning from injury, leaving an opening beside Brooks in central defense. If Orozco starts, it could be an indication that he’s made the 23-man squad. If it’s Matt Miazga, the newly minted Chelsea player who’s probably not yet ready for a competition like the Copa, it probably means that Klinsmann is waiting for MLS-based reinforcements.
Tim Ream’s versatility makes him a Copa candidate. He can play in the middle or as a left back, where he was deployed for most of Fulham’s season. Either Ream or Eric Lichaj, a less likely 23-man inclusion, will get the go-ahead on Sunday. Yedlin should be Klinsmann’s first-choice right back next month.
With Johnson still getting healthy, Alejandro Bedoya becomes the only available midfielder likely to see significant minutes in the Copa. It will be worth keeping track of where Klinsmann plays him on Sunday—in a more central attacking role like he does at Nantes, or further toward the touchline like he frequently does with the U.S.
Either Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams could be in frame to be a second-choice defensive midfielder behind Kyle Beckerman next month. Both have had their chance to impress in Miami and a start for either should indicate who’s got a better shot at the final roster. Although he won’t be going to the Copa, 20-year-old Emerson Hyndman is a playmaker with potential who just happens to be on the lookout for a new club after five years at Fulham.
Klinsmann may give him significant time in order to showcase a player with high ambition.
Bobby Wood, who just signed with Bundesliga club Hamburger SV after lighting it up at second-tier Union Berlin, is the only forward available who’s set to contribute at the Copa. Look for him to take his opportunity Sunday to maintain his form and confidence—whether it’s dribbling at defenders, taking an extra shot or two, or working on creating space in the attacking half with smart runs behind the back four.
We’re also plenty curious to get a look at St. Pauli’s Fafa Picault and Bayern Munich reserve Julian Green, who’s almost disappeared since his stunning World Cup goal against Belgium.
The U.S. roster in Puerto Rico:
GOALKEEPERS: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton/Colorado Rapids), Zack Steffen (Freiburg)*
DEFENDERS: John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur/Sunderland)
MIDFIELDERS: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Emerson Hyndman (Fulham)*, Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)*, Danny Williams (Reading)
FORWARDS: Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana)*, Julian Green (Bayern Munich)*, Fabrice Picault (St. Pauli)*, Amando Moreno (Club Tijuana)*, Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
* Not included on 40-man Copa América preliminary roster