There were the post-World Cup friendlies, Landon Donovan’s farewell and the trip to England and Ireland that came right in the middle of the MLS playoffs. Then there was the grind of a January camp that represented preseason for some and a chance to get noticed for others. Full rosters were tough to assemble. Hangovers and distractions seemed plentiful. Immediacy and pressure, not so much.
So, it’s fair to say that the 2018 World Cup cycle really begins this week, with the first of five high-profile friendlies that precede July’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Wednesday’s match against Denmark (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, UniMas), followed by tilts against Switzerland, Mexico (the only home game), Netherlands and Germany will offer the U.S. and coach Jurgen Klinsmann a valuable opportunity to forge the chemistry, consistency and tactical identity that could carry the squad through the Gold Cup and toward November’s World Cup qualifiers.
Captain Clint Dempsey has been ruled out for the upcoming two games with a hamstring injury, but the experienced likes of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are joined by a number of young and eager options in addition to a couple of new dual-national faces.
Here are the main aspects to keep an eye on as the U.S. looks to build on its winter-camp-ending 2-0 win over Panama and gain steam toward this summer:
Partnerships In Focus
Laying the groundwork for a few key on-field partnerships is a critical component of building team-wide cohesion—not only for the next few months but as Klinsmann looks toward 2018. The current roster, now absent Dempsey, offers the manager the chance to see how several up-and-comers might mesh with core veterans, or whether players on the fringe during the previous World Cup cycle now have what it takes to be regular starters. We’d like to see regular starters, and we’d like to see if the following three partnerships have potential:
Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson
Dempsey isn’t in Denmark, and he won’t be around forever. The U.S. captain is 32 and much closer to the end of his legendary international career than the beginning. Now’s the time to see if Altidore—easily Klinsmann’s most complete target forward—can forge a bit of chemistry with the creative and cunning Jóhannsson. The AZ Alkmaar forward hasn’t played for the U.S. since the World Cup opener and is finally healthy after battling several nagging injuries.
He has a knack for creating chances that his countrymen, apart from Dempsey, don’t. Jóhannsson and Altidore haven’t started up top together since October 2013. It was Jóhannsson’s third cap.
Michael Bradley and Danny Williams
Jermaine Jones, 33, is shifting back to defense, Kyle Beckerman is 32 and Mix Diskerud’s suitability as an international, box-to-box midfielder remains under review. In steps Williams, 26, who’s re-emerged after overcoming a knee injury that contributed to nearly a year in the international wilderness. He’s played just twice for Klinsmann since the start of 2013 but has performed well as a starter for Reading in the English Championship and may offer the sort of steel and discipline that could free up Michael Bradley to direct traffic. The potential for a long-term midfield tandem is in the offing.
Fabian Johnson and Greg Garza
Johnson played well at the World Cup as a right back, but Klinsmann likes the speedy German-born veteran in midfield as well. Garza’s emergence as a smart, solid left back could give the manager the opportunity to make the most of Johnson’s range and skill set. Johnson has been playing as a left midfielder for Borussia Mönchengladbach, which is third in the Bundesliga, and his presence there would open up the right for the likes of Alejandro Bedoya, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi (who’s not on the current roster) and others.
Klinsmann is a fan of Garza, who’s now played five times for the U.S. He’s practically ever present for Liga MX leader Club Tijuana.
- Brian Straus
Three Pressing Questions
With Dempsey heading home with a hamstring strain, my guess is Klinsmann will go with a 4-4-2 that could look like this: Nick Rimando; Timmy Chandler, Michael Orozco, John Brooks, Greg Garza; Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Danny Williams, Fabian Johnson; Aron Jóhannsson, Jozy Altidore.
It has been a long time since Jóhannsson (against Ghana in June 2014) and Williams (against Ukraine in March 2014) have played for the national team, but both could get the nod on Wednesday in Aarhus (where Jóhannsson used to play his club ball). At 24 and playing regularly again for AZ Alkmaar, Jóhannsson is still a player who could become a dangerous scoring threat at the international level if he can get over the injuries that have sidelined him with regularity.
Can Gyasi Zardes build on his winter camp?
Zardes, 23, broke out in the U.S.’s last game, a 2-0 win against Panama, and even if he’s a sub these two games in Europe are a nice opportunity to continue his upward trend. Starting at right midfield against Panama, Zardes was confident, crisp and decisive in early February, and there’s no reason he can’t bring those attributes here as well. Klinsmann appears willing to give him a chance, so it would be nice to see Zardes get more than just 10 minutes or so on the field.
How much time (if any) will Ventura Alvarado and William Yarbrough get?
The new Mexican-based players are certainly intriguing, and you wonder how much run Klinsmann will give them on this trip.
Starting this game seems unlikely (though not impossible), but León’s Yarbrough, 26, could get time in goal as a sub in this game or the next, and Club América’s Alvarado, 22, seems likely to take the field at some point on the back line.
Neither can be cap-tied to the U.S. in these friendlies, of course, but their presence suggests the U.S. has the inside track over Mexico at this point.
- Grant Wahl
GOALKEEPERS: Cody Cropper (Southampton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake), William Yarbrough (Club Leon)
DEFENDERS: Ventura Alvarado (Club America), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Greg Garza (Club Tijuana), Michael Orozco (Puebla), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), Brek Shea (Orlando City SC), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur)
MIDFIELDERS: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Julian Green (Hamburg), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Danny Williams (Reading), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Rubio Rubin (Utrecht)
GOALKEEPERS: Kasper Schmeichel (Leicester City), Jonas Lössl (Guingamp), Stephan Anderson (FC Copenhagen)
DEFENDERS: Daniel Wass (Evian), Erik Sviatchenko (Midtjylland), Kian Hansen (FC Nantes), Lars Jacobsen (Guingamp), Mathias Jorgensen (FC Copenhagen), Nicolai Boilesen (Ajax), Simon Kjaer (Lille), Simon Poulsen (AZ Alkmaar)
MIDFIELDERS: Christian Eriksen (Tottenham), Jakob Poulsen (Midtjylland), Lasse Schöne (Ajax), Lasse Vibe (Gothenburg), Thomas Delaney (FC Copenhagen), William Kvist Jorgensen (Wigan Athletic)
FORWARDS: Anders Christiansen (Chievo Verona), Martin Braithwaite (Toulouse), Michael Krohn-Dehli (Celta Vigo), Nicklas Bendtner (Wolfsburg), Nicolai Jorgensen (FC Copenhagen)