The U.S. men's national team faces Guatemala in its final tune-up prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup, where it can clinch a place in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Nashville is a far cry from Amsterdam or Cologne, and no one will mistake Guatemala, FIFA’s 93rd-ranked team, for World Cup champion Germany or bronze medalist Holland. Friday’s U.S. national team friendly at Nissan Stadium might feel a bit anticlimactic less than a month after two stunning victories in Europe.
But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. The Guatemala game is far from it.
While the wins against Germany and the Netherlands certainly gave U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players a welcome confidence boost ahead of this month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, they weren’t much of a dress rehearsal. The names were glamorous, but the stakes were low.
The 13th Gold Cup will be taxing (six games in under three weeks, plus lots of travel) and features the sort of familiarity that breeds close calls and contempt. Gold Cup opponents will approach the U.S. much differently than Germany or the Netherlands. The Americans will have to handle their status as tournament favorite while playing against more deliberate, defensive teams happy to disrupt and counter. The focus will be on possession rather than pace.
"It's never easy going to Europe," newly-minted U.S. captain Michael Bradley told reporters in Nashville. "You have to be organized, you have to be committed to being hard to play against. You must be dynamic to put good teams on the back foot. But those games are different from the games we'll play this month.” Those will feature, “organized defenses, difficult to break down, lots of guys behind the ball,” he said.
For that reason, the Guatemala game offers a welcome opportunity to, as midfielder Graham Zusi put it in a U.S. Soccer interview, “iron out some details.” And despite those dazzling wins in Europe, there definitely are details to iron out.
Zusi is one of them. The Sporting Kansas City veteran hasn’t played for the U.S. in 2015 and is one of several members of Klinsmann’s 23-man squad who must re-establish a bit of international rhythm before the tournament kicks off on July 7. Omar Gonzalez, by far the most experienced central defender on the Gold Cup team, has appeared in only one U.S. match this year. Tim Ream, who’s been stellar for Bolton Wanderers, has played only one national team minute in 2015.
Neither Clint Dempsey nor Jozy Altidore was on the squad that went to Amsterdam and Cologne. In fact, they haven’t started together since early February. And there are plenty of tactical questions left unanswered, from the starters in back, to whether Klinsmann will deploy a three, four or five-man midfield. The manager’s quest to deepen the player pool has left him with numerous possibilities and permutations, but on-field chemistry isn’t a given. Friday represents the only chance to establish some before next week, when the U.S. opens group play against Honduras.
"It’s a very short preparation because it’s only a one-week window before we move over to Dallas for the first game in the Gold Cup,” Klinsmann said. “The big challenge is to get the European-based players and also the Mexican-based players on the same page with the MLS players because they had a different schedule. They had a quick break, a quick vacation and we have to get them up to speed as quickly as possible, so that’s kind of the key goal here in Nashville, to get everybody on the same page and play a good game.”
He continued, “I think the game against Guatemala will give us a really big hint toward the starting 11 a couple of days later in Dallas against Honduras,” adding that the permitted six substitutions will allow him to get a look at additional players and combinations.
The U.S. has lost only once in Gold Cup group play (in 2011) and has appeared in five consecutive finals dating back 10 years, winning three. Klinsmann will be less concerned with surviving the first round, as he was last year in Brazil, with positioning his team to play for the trophy and qualify directly for the 2017 Confederations Cup. As a result, the team and tactics we see on Friday, and those used throughout the group stage, almost surely will evolve.
But Friday’s game represents a start, and that’s important going into a tournament that will present some challenges, and which Klinsmann has deemed a must-win.
“We are under the expectations of winning this tournament. Even if we know that teams like Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico all are very good teams and can also beat us, you’ve got to be on top of things. You’ve got to be very disciplined. You’ve got to be focused and in a CONCACAF tournament, you’ve got to be patient,” Klinsmann said.
“We expect most of the teams to play against us in a very defensive style,” he continued. “It’s not going to be an open game like in a World Cup where you have the best teams in the world and they just go at you. In most of our games in the Gold Cup, it’s going to be the opposite. They’re going to defend first of all and then hope for a counter break or for a set piece to score against us. We told the players right from the beginning that it’s expected that we go through it with a lot of discipline and with a lot of aggressiveness and a lot determination.”
Guatemala can’t match American firepower, but Los Chapines may be able to grind the game to a halt and in players like Marco Pappa and Carlos Ruiz, they boast veterans familiar with the U.S. Guatemala won the silver medal at least year’s Copa Centroamericana and defeated Honduras, 2-0, along the way (Pappa scored both goals). But this year has been a struggle. It’s won only one of six games and barely defeated Bermuda, 1-0, on aggregate, in last month’s home-and-home World Cup qualifying series.
It’s not exactly Germany. But in many ways, Guatemala represents just the sort of dress rehearsal the U.S. needs as it seeks its sixth continental title.
“It’s such a different game plan that we have, especially when we played Germany and Holland a couple of weeks ago,” forward Chris Wondolowski told Fox. “Those games showed we are very good on the counter attack and we can break down teams like that. At the Gold Cup, it’s going to be about possessing the ball. We’ll have a lot of that. At times, you get frustrated. That’s something we’re already starting to preach: patience. Keep the ball. Keep going at it. Keep going after the game plan. Eventually, you will break them down. It might not be the first minute. It might be the 50th or the 70th or the 80th minute to finally break them down. You have to have that patience.”