Jurgen Klinsmann looks for more growth as critical stretch nears
The CONCACAF Gold Cup afterglow already is receding as coach Jurgen Klinsmann prepares the U.S. national team for the World Cup qualifying stretch run.
Wednesday afternoon's friendly at Bosnia-Herzegovina (2:30 PM ET, ESPN2) will be his only opportunity to look at a few key players prior to the early September showdowns with Costa Rica and Mexico. Although some teams take it easy during FIFA's August match day, Klinsmann has no such intentions.
"These are top-class players and that's what we like to go against," the manager said of Bosnia, which is undefeated in World Cup qualifying and ranked 13th in the world. "We want to have the highest benchmark to always measure ourselves up against. We also want to see the new faces in our group and take that opportunity of getting a couple interesting answers on specific players."
So, since Wednesday's friendly apparently matters, here are a few things to watch for as the U.S. takes on Bosnia for the first time:
Road Warriors: This will be the sixth time in less than two years that Klinsmann has taken his team to Europe. His predecessor, Bob Bradley, went 2-6-0 during his five years on the U.S. bench.
One of the hallmarks of Klinsmann's tenure has been his team's knack for either sinking or rising to its opponent's level on the road. Jamaica, Guatemala, Antigua and Honduras were tougher than they should have been. Italy, Mexico and Slovenia were beaten. The team's most recent trip to Europe resulted in a 2-2 tie with Russia, which entered that November 2012 exhibition with four consecutive shutout wins. Michael Bradley and Mikkel Diskerud each scored in the final 15 minutes to secure an impressive draw.
The U.S. now is 2-2-1 in Europe under Klinsmann after starting with 2011 losses in Belgium and France.
A good result in Sarajevo will belong right alongside those historic victories in Mexico City and Genoa. Bosnia arguably is the strongest team in Eastern Europe at the moment and hasn't been beaten in over a year. The Dragons' last defeat on home soil came back in September 2010.
Of course, the U.S. is on an impressive streak of its own, with a record 11 straight victories dating back to the exhibition win over Germany in early June. While friendlies never should be mistaken for competitive matches, they can enhance momentum and help establish a mentality. With a qualifier in Costa Rica around the corner, Klinsmann would love to see his team rise to the occasion once again in a difficult environment.
Dual national debutantes: It won't make up for the 2022 World Cup vote, but FIFA did the U.S. a solid on Tuesday by approving Aron Johannsson's switch in international allegiance from Iceland to the U.S. He's now permanently tied to the U.S. and is eligible to play in Sarajevo.
The 22-year-old forward was born in Alabama to Icelandic parents but became a hot property after scoring 14 times in 18 league games for Denmark's AGF Aarhus during the first half of the 2012-13 season. He transferred to AZ last winter and tallied three more goals as a teammate of Jozy Altidore.
Johannsson, who previously played in an official junior competition for Iceland, declared his intention to represent the U.S. two weeks ago. On Tuesday, he told U.S. Soccer's website that he is "super excited ... to play for such a big country and for a country that is fighting for titles. The U.S. makes it to the World Cup every single time and there's a lot of up and coming talent in the U.S. and they're getting bigger and better by every moment, by every game."
Now that he's been cleared, his first game could come Wednesday. If he pans out, there very well could be a measurable impact on Klinsmann's depth chart. Clint Dempsey likely would be deployed further back, perhaps putting the squeeze on either Graham Zusi or Landon Donovan. Herculez Gomez, Chris Wondolowski and Terrence Boyd might see their opportunities dwindle. There aren't a lot of games between Wednesday and next summer's World Cup but after making his lifetime commitment, Johannsson surely will be given an opportunity to show his stuff soon.
Klinsmann originally brought Johannsson to Bosnia just to get him acclimated into the program.
"He's done a great job in these couple days getting to know the guys," Klinsmann said Tuesday. "Hopefully if the game goes well tomorrow night, there will be a chance for him to make his debut with the U.S. national team."
John Anthony Brooks is the other dual national who's chosen tlhe U.S. -- at least for now. Brooks, 20, is a towering central defender from Berlin who scored in his Bundesliga debut last weekend. An appearance on Wednesday won't tie him permanently to the U.S. -- it's just a friendly -- but a good experience in Sarajevo might go a long way toward cementing his loyalty. Not many players turn their back on Germany (Brooks was in the U-21 pipeline), meaning Klinsmann might be tempted to give the young defender a high-profile vote of confidence against Bosnia.
Sounders in Sarajevo: Seattle's most prominent U.S. national teamer, Clint Dempsey, isn't in Bosnia. But new Sounders teammates Eddie Johnson and Brad Evans are, and they're the only MLS players called in for this far-off, midseason exhibition.
Klinsmann told American Soccer Now that "badly needed them to be competitive against Bosnia." That's quite the turn of events for two players who were nowhere near the national team picture when Klinsmann took over. But Johnson and Evans have earned their way in thanks to their versatility and some clutch qualifying performances. A spot on the plane to Brazil could be theirs to lose.
Johnson can play up front or as a more withdrawn, wide attacker and is dangerous taking a defender on or as a target man in the penalty area. No other attacker on Klinsmann's Bosnia roster has more weapons at his disposal, and a good performance against a top-flight European team would send a message that Johnson would be an asset in a World Cup and not just in CONCACAF.
Evans is probably the sort of player that Klinsmann would term a "giver" -- a hardworking, team-first guy who can play a variety of roles. He has the work ethic of a defender but is comfortable with the ball and played well at right back as the U.S. went 3-0-0 in June's World Cup qualifiers. He also scored that stoppage-time game-winner in Jamaica.
Who will be Klinsmann's right back in Brazil? Steve Cherundolo, who's on his way back from a knee injury suffered in June, will be 35 when the World Cup kicks off. Klinsmann told ASN that Timmy Chandler wasn't invited to Bosnia "because other players are ahead of him in the ranking of the team at the moment." Geoff Cameron probably is more valuable in the middle, leaving Michael Parkhurst as Evans' top competition for minutes.
A strong performance on Wednesday would give Evans the inside track on a starting spot in September.
Matching Midfielders: Bradley and Jermaine Jones, veteran midfielders who play important roles for top European clubs, are the frontrunners to start centrally on Wednesday. Individually, it makes sense.
But together, the pair still hasn't proven that it's the best choice for the U.S. and Klinsmann continues to hint now and then that their chemistry -- who pushes forward, who covers, etc. -- isn't perfect yet. Bradley's AS Roma teammate, Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanić, is the sort of creative midfielder who will find the space to exploit an untimely shift in position from one of the Americans.
It's worth noting that in June's 2-0 win over Panama, arguably the national team's best performance this year, it was the more defensive Cameron -- and not Jones -- who paired with Bradley in central midfield. Each player's role was more clearly defined in that setup, as they would be if Bradley was deployed behind the likes of Diskerud. Sacha Kljestan -- a box-to-box midfielder with attacking instincts -- and the crafty Joe Corona also present options that would affect Klinsmann's midfield tactics.
Central midfield remains an area of the field where the U.S. is still looking for its ideal setup. Starting Wednesday, there's some 10 months to go.