Though Jozy Altidore is struggling at Sunderland, he has eight international goals in 2013. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)
Nearly 18 months ago, back when Jurgen Klinsmann was still trying to figure out his team and his team was still trying to figure out Klinsmann, the U.S. smashed Scotland, 5-1, in a friendly played in Jacksonville, Fla. The Americans had scored a combined eight goals in Klinsmann’s first 10 games in charge. The onslaught seemed to come out of nowhere. Three days earlier, Landon Donovan said he was struggling with his energy level and motivation. Then he went out and scored a hat trick while Scotland failed to put a shot on net. The visitors were awful.
“They came to Jacksonville to finish their season and they simply wanted to have a good time and go on vacation. The coach, even after the match, kind of apologized,” Klinsmann told U.S. Soccer’s website.
Now, he’s putting his faith in Scotland to help the U.S. get ready for Brazil.
The Americans will meet the Scots in Glasgow on Friday (3 PM ET, ESPN2) in the first of two “World Cup preparation games,” as Klinsmann is calling the upcoming friendlies. The U.S. then will face Austria on Nov. 19.
As usual, Klinsmann will be unable to field a first-choice lineup. But absences open the door for hopefuls and with only one more FIFA international window scheduled before the World Cup (next March), every minute will count. The U.S. is running out of time to settle on a World Cup lineup. Here are three storylines for Friday:
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1. Striker Search: Jozy Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland are well known and certainly shouldn’t be placed entirely on his broad shoulders. It’s a club that has won two of its 11 league games this season and Altidore has scored just once, in an August League Cup match against third-tier opposition. But Klinsmann has kept the faith. After all, this is the same player who has eight international goals in 2013.
“We are very satisfied with the way things are going with Jozy even with him being in a tough situation right now,” Klinsmann said. “Sunderland is a new club for him. It’s a big club, and the way they were playing their game, he was not getting many opportunities to score. … It’s really difficult for Jozy, but this is also what he needs to go through. He has a very positive attitude and has come a long way already in his young career and will get stronger.”
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Meanwhile, Altidore’s former AZ Alkmaar teammate, Aron Johannsson, is in the form of his life. He has 14 goals this season for AZ, in addition to the game-winner against Panama in last month’s climactic World Cup qualifier. Johannsson is as good with the ball in tight spaces as any U.S. player. He'll be capable of attacking in concert with Altidore or pulling defenders in a different direction and, if he continues to score at this pace, will be almost impossible to leave on the bench in Brazil.
Altidore, 24, and Johannsson, 23, have started together in U.S. uniforms once, in the 2-0 defeat of Jamaica last month. Absent the likes of Landon Donovan (ankle) and Clint Dempsey (calf) and lacking an established attacking ideal, Klinsmann could give Altidore and Johannsson another chance. That could occur in a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1 in which Johannsson plays a bit higher. It may just get Altidore going and, considering their potential, it's a partnership worth looking at before World Cup tactics really start to take shape.
2. Hi, Eric Lichaj: At the moment, Klinsmann’s starting outside backs are DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans, both of whom are converted midfielders. Questions remain about whether they’re World Cup caliber defenders, even if they’re currently the best options at Klinsmann’s disposal (assuming Fabian Johnson, who will miss the friendlies with an ankle injury, is considered a midfielder).
Enter, at long last, Eric Lichaj. Ignored by Klinsmann, the 24-year-old defender was in the international wilderness for more than two years. He last played for the U.S. in the summer of 2011. Since then he's suffered and recovered from a long-term hip injury and played regularly for Aston Villa before moving to Nottingham Forest this summer. He is mobile and comfortable pushing forward – something Klinsmann likes to see from his fullbacks – and would be in his element on Friday going up against players he’s seen in England (the vast majority of Scotland’s team plays for clubs south of the border).
There isn’t much point in calling up Lichaj if he’s not going to play, and there isn’t much time remaining to integrate a new member into the team. But there’s a sense that outside back is an area of need and for Lichaj, it’s now or never. With no body of work under Klinsmann, his performance over the next two games – assuming he plays – likely will determine his U.S. future. No other player faces that kind of pressure.
“For the team, every player is trying to impress to get to the World Cup obviously,” Lichaj told U.S. Soccer’s website. “For me personally, I’m just trying to do what I do best. Hopefully, that will be enough for the manager to bring me in for the next camp. So, I’ll just keep working hard towards that.”
3. Scottish Struggles: Soccer’s roots run deep in Scotland, where the first official international match was played back in 1872 (a 0-0 draw with England). If fans in the U.S. are envious of that culture and tradition, then the suffering supporters of the Scottish national team surely are jealous of the Americans’ summer plans. While the U.S. will compete in its seventh consecutive World Cup, Scotland will stay home for a record fourth consecutive time.
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Scotland has rebounded relatively well from the 5-1 humiliation in Jacksonville. The coach who apologized to Klinsmann that day, Craig Levein, was out of a job five months later. He was replaced by Gordon Strachan, a veteran manager who’s started to erase some of the somber pall that hung over the program. Scotland has won four games this year – twice as many as it managed in 2012 – and according to Klinsmann it is “very different from last year.” He said, “It’s a team full of competitiveness that every time they play in Hampden Park in Glasgow is full of energy and full of enthusiasm and great attitude because they want to show their crowd that they’re good. For us, it’s a great benchmark to face them on their home turf and fully motivated.”
Scotland lacks real star power but certainly fields a few threats. Forward Steven Naismith has a couple of goals this season for Everton and midfielder Robert Snodgrass, from Norwich City, has emerged as a solid attacking presence. U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard called Snodgrass “tricky” this week.
Strachan has said that he hasn’t watched the Jacksonville loss and that he’s focused only on the future. Naismith told reporters that despite Scotland’s absence from Brazil, the future is upon them. For a storied team desperate to turn the corner, giving the U.S. a game will establish some momentum.
"The squad is getting to the mid-to-late 20s stage [in age] and you have to be hitting your peak at some point and that has to come from now,” Naismith said. “We have started from a good base and it has got to continue. The results we have had have been brilliant. We have moved on a long way but the real test will be when the Euros start and we have to be ready for that.”
And the tougher Scotland is, the more the U.S. will benefit.