The U.S.' targets for Wednesday's friendly against Mexico (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univisión) seem clear enough: continue acquainting players and coaches; set a baseline of expectations on each side, and; make progress on a blueprint that adds some German craftsmanship to that quintessential American determination.
Oh, and hope things don't get too messy against a darn good Mexico team as it all begins coming together.
Wednesday's doings against Mexico didn't seem like much of an occasion when announced a month ago; rivals or no, we've seen this movie before. Recent U.S.-Mexico pairings carried more weight, and so will World Cup qualifiers ahead between these two regional kingpins. But this one suddenly has more pizazz thanks to the introduction of a certain charismatic and charming German, new coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
"There's certainly a 'first day of school' feeling around it," veteran right back Steve Cherundolo said Monday from Philadelphia, where 20 U.S. players have been gathering gradually since Sunday. "There's definitely a learning process for all parties, which is good and positive. The attention span of the players and coaches is very high at the moment."
Just 12 days after his official appointment, Klinsmann will see his time on the clock commence in earnest. The 11 starters deployed at Lincoln Financial Field almost certainly won't be the same 11 protecting the U.S. crest at Brazil 2014 -- assuming things go smoothly and the Americans make it. But everything that happens beginning with Wednesday's initial Klinsmann-era kickoff points in that direction -- toward something bigger and better at the next World Cup.
So this is the highly anticipated first peak at the coach who long ago became the apple of U.S. fans' eyes. On the one hand, nothing that happens Wednesday, none of Klinsmann's tactics, personnel choices, substitution patterns, etc., will be written into U.S. Soccer law. There is clearly a prolonged evaluation period ahead for so many things. Still, let's not fool ourselves; first impressions mean a lot, and every choice will be picked apart like Thanksgiving turkey by excitable supporters, media and bloggers.
How will he structure the midfield and that redundant abundance of central talent? What are his plans for Landon Donovan, whose position has always been somewhat nomadic? Is Carlos Bocanegra a center back or left back? (The latter seems less likely, given Klinsmann's inclination for more offensive thrust.) Related, will the coach change his tune about employing technical inclined defenders if the U.S. back line gets picked apart by Mexico's speed and fluid interchange?
What is his preferred formation? Does it look more like the 4-4-2 that guided Klinsmann's and Germany's breakthrough, breathtaking third-place finish at World Cup 2006? Or is it closer to the 4-2-3-1 that predecessor Bob Bradley leaned toward in recent months?
Is there room for a playmaker?
"We're all open minded, open to new ideas and new ways of doing things," Cherundolo said. "Nobody here is expecting Jurgen to reinvent the wheel, but he certainly has plenty of experience as a player, and definitely has experience as a coach, too. He's an intelligent guy, and there's bound to be some things he's picked up that hopefully he can share with us and that we can apply from there."
If you remove Klinsmann and his rotating "guest" assistants -- Tab Ramos, Thomas Dooley and Martín Vásquez headline this one -- from the conversation for just moment, a whole other center of intrigue revolves around second chances and clean slates for estranged members of the player pool, those lower in the order with fresh leases on life. That list includes some established hands who haven't been seen in U.S. camps recently (guys such as DaMarcus Beasley, Heath Pearce and Jose Torres), younger and slightly less familiar types (Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco Fiscal and Zach Loyd) and plenty of guys in between, capable MLS standouts who have yet to land a settled spot internationally (Brek Shea, Kyle Beckerman and Robbie Rogers).
And there's always Freddy Adu, a guy whose story just never stops being fascinating. He's not currently involved with a professional club, still seeking a move from Portugal's Benfica. And he hasn't played a minute since that June appearance against Mexico, limited to working out on his own in the D.C. area. Still, what a revelation of an appearance it was, as Adu stood out among the few competent starters on that otherwise forgettable afternoon.
Early U.S. training sessions this week failed to reveal much of the Klinsmann way; that's mostly because the numbers simply weren't available to begin aligning tactics and matching positions; only 13 players arrived in time for Sunday's initial session. Players continued trickling into Philadelphia right up until midnight Monday. The new coach is making the best of things, however, planning on two sessions Tuesday and even one session Wednesday morning, presumably light on workload but heavier on tactical acquaintance.
In some cases, players knew little more than fans about their role in it all. Pearce, for instance, has played right back, left back and center back in MLS. Where might the Chivas USA defender line up for Klinsmann? Great question. Even after Monday's workout, Pearce had no idea -- and didn't sound like he cared much.
"It's just a great opportunity all the way around, especially being Jurgen's first game," Pearce said. "It's just good to be with the guys here, try to make an impression and certainly try to get a good result."
They'll certainly make collective impression by somehow overcoming Mexico. This is the same Mexican team that shrugged off a two-goal U.S. lead in June's Gold Cup final, mocking that early deficit to eventually parade out of the Rose Bowl with a commanding 4-2 victory. The fateful night seemed to cement Mexico's place as regional king, erasing any lingering aroma of a decade where its northern neighbor held the high ground.
Mexico's roster is stacked and packed for Wednesday; only one starter from El Tri's proclamation victory six weeks ago is absent. The Mexicans will certainly miss Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and his instincts near goal. (He's still recovering from a concussion suffered during Manchester United's U.S. summer tour.) But they have Giovanni Dos Santos, whose dazzling match included a wonder strike for the ages, and plenty of supporting talent from a young generation unbothered by bygone eras.
As for his own selections, Klinsmann called a strong side, but not his strongest. Fulham's Clint Dempsey, whose club is already quite busy, wasn't summoned for this one. Tim Chandler, the keen and quick German-born right back whose U.S. debut came in the spring, initially made Wednesday's roster. But U.S. Soccer apparently got in a hurry on that one, starting a little political brush fire that needed some smoothing over with his Bundesliga side, FC Nuremberg. (That bit of excitement has some history, as Chandler was omitted from the U.S. Gold Cup roster under hazy circumstances. Suffice to say, everyone will feel a little better about the 21-year-old breakout defender-midfielder's ability to commit to the U.S. shirt when he finally makes another U.S. appearance.) Maurice Edu was initially on Klinsmann's first roster, but an Aug. 6 calf injury suffered at Rangers meant Robbie Rogers' late addition and defender Clarence Goodson (hamstring) was another late injury scratch.
More matches and more opportunities for Dempsey and the others await, Sept. 2 outside Los Angeles against Costa Rica and Sept. 6 in Brussels against Belgium. In the meantime, Klinsmann is making headway fast as he can.
"Two days of training gives us a little idea where we are at, how good they are physically, and you get to know them a little bit and build from there," Klinsmann told reporters on Saturday in Philadelphia, where he did more homework by watching the Union meet Houston in MLS action. "It is not ideal, and it is what it is, and I never complain."