Most weeks, the U.S. national team winding up its preparation for a major tournament with foreign-soil friendlies against two of the three top finishers from the previous World Cup would be American soccer’s lead story.
Thanks to FIFA’s implosion, Saturday’s compelling UEFA Champions League final and the build up to the Women’s World Cup, normally marquee matchups with the Netherlands (Friday) and Germany (June 10) have been overshadowed. And the absence of so many key U.S. veterans guts the upcoming games a little bit more. Without his best squad, coach Jurgen Klinsmann is less likely to engineer a result that might steal a bit of the spotlight. These two matches will provide stiff tests for a team whose tactics still are taking shape and for several newer players still hoping to establish themselves on the U.S. depth chart.
“We want to see now throughout that whole year, what was the learning curve from those players that we gave that opportunity to? Where do they stand right now?” Klinsmann asked. “I think with these two games with Germany and with Holland, now we can kind of close the loop and say ‘OK, now we know where to put them in the ranking.’ Eventually, it’s down to naming a roster for the Gold Cup that is able to win that Gold Cup, and you have to kind of leave the transition phase or the experimentation phase on the side.”
So the tinkering must stop in July, but it isn’t July yet. If the next 180 minutes don’t help Klinsmann establish the combinations and chemistry that might pay off at the Gold Cup, they should at least allow him to draw some temporary conclusions about several players. Germany and the Netherlands don’t just represent the “cold water” to which Klinsmann frequently refers. This time, he said, it’s “freezing cold.”
Despite everything else going on in the world of soccer, we’ll be watching as Klinsmann looks to “close the loop,” starting Friday as the U.S. meets the Netherlands, bronze medalists last summer in Brazil, on Friday in Amsterdam.
Here’s what we’ll be watching, from the back to the front of the lineup:
Guzan's return to goal
Klinsmann doesn’t typically offer his players safe harbor, at least publicly. He wants them fighting and scratching for minutes, never settling or feeling that their position is a given. It was interesting, therefore, when the manager declared this week that Brad Guzan not only is the national team’s “No. 1” goalkeeper, but that it’s already been determined that the 30-year-old will man the nets at the Gold Cup.
Nick Rimando has started all five U.S. games this year and went 5-0-0 at the 2013 Gold Cup. He’s certainly not played himself out of the starting job and at 35, he’s not being brought in as a goalkeeper for the future.
Guzan, meanwhile, hasn’t played for the U.S. in more than six months and is coming off a tough end of the season at Aston Villa, where he was benched by manager Tim Sherwood.
He’s played only once in the past eight weeks and now will have to rediscover his form quickly, because the Gold Cup apparently awaits.
“He fights through [the benching at Villa] and he will be sharp and he will be hungry for the long summer,” Klinsmann said.
Center backs will get tested
Before his groin injury, Jermaine Jones was scheduled to move back into the U.S. midfield, the center back experiment having concluded. Klinsmann’s reasoning was that his team had “so many high-quality center backs” from which to choose. Those who started there at the World Cup—Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron—were left off the roster for the games in Holland and Germany, however, leaving the likes of John Brooks, Ventura Alvarado and Michael Orozco to contend with Robin van Persie and Co.
Brooks and Alvarado, each 22, are the likely starters and have 13 caps between them. They play at a high level week to week. Alvarado is a key contributor at Club América, the CONCACAF champion, and Brooks re-established his place at Hertha Berlin and helped the club narrowly escape relegation from the Bundesliga. But they’re untested internationally. Alvarado is new to the team and Brooks struggled during the March friendlies against Switzerland and Denmark.
Friday will be the start of a much stiffer test—one that Brooks and Alvarado (Michael Orozco is in the mix as well) will have to pass if either hopes to make a convincing argument that he’s a better option than the World Cup starters. The U.S. will get a break with Arjen Robben's absence, but the Dutch are hoping to make a statement of their own. The Oranje have been less than convincing under Guus Hiddink (3-4-1 since the World Cup) and are third in their 2016 European Championship qualifying group heading into a June 12 meeting with Latvia. The Dutch will be coming.
Michael Bradley's midfield partner
Michael Bradley isn’t a traditional playmaker, but his sense for tempo and his ability to unlock a defense with a killer pass makes him the best choice for the spot behind the forwards—at least as far as Klinsmann is concerned. But questions surrounding his ideal partner remain unanswered.
Since the World Cup, Klinsmann has tried out Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya—two offensively inclined players—along with Kyle Beckerman and Danny Williams, who are more traditional defensive midfielders. Williams has the least amount of international experience among that quartet but may prove to be the best long-term option. Williams, 26, wound up having a good season with Reading after overcoming his own injury issues and played well during the 1-1 tie in Switzerland.
The U.S. looked significantly more stable and composed with Williams behind Bradley than it has in other recent games against top-tier opposition and settled for the draw only after being reduced to 10 men. If Williams can successfully keep an eye on the likes of Memphis Depay out wide or even Wesley Sneijder in the middle, all while giving Bradley room to set the pace and create, Klinsmann may have found the combination he has sought.
Altidore, Dempsey replacements; Who steps up?
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey have combined to score 67 international goals. The 19 field players at Klinsmann’s disposal in Amsterdam and Cologne have tallied a combined 36. The five forwards available have seven. The drop-off from Altidore and Dempsey, who will miss the upcoming friendlies (Altidore has a hamstring injury and Dempsey is awaiting the birth of his fourth child), is steep.
“Obviously we have Jozy that we rely on. We have Clint, who did his job for so many years. But we need the next generation of strikers to come in and score goals on a consistent basis. The key message really to Juan Agudelo, to an Aron Jóhannsson, to a Bobby Wood, to a Jordan Morris and all of these young, talented strikers … you’ve got to score goals on a consistent basis,” Klinsmann said.
Morris struck against Mexico in April but remains new on the senior international scene and joined the national team from the Toulon Tournament, where he played with the U.S. Under-23s.
Agudelo, who also scored that night in San Antonio, is making his return after a three-year absence and Gyasi Zardes certainly isn’t accustomed to playing agianst the likes of Holland and Germany. Bobby Wood, who spent the spring at relegated 2. Bundesliga club Erzgebirge Aue, has shown little in his six U.S. appearances.
That leaves Jóhannsson, who’s been unlucky with injuries over the past year but finally seems to be healthy and hitting his stride. He scored four goals in his final three matches with AZ Alkmaar and struck against Denmark in March before missing the Switzerland game. He's skillful, unpredictable on and off the ball and can create his own chances, and on Friday he may be more comfortable than his teammates against familiar opposition.
This is Jóhannsson’s chance to give Dempsey and Altidore some company at the top of the depth chart.
GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015
The Year in Photos: U.S. Soccer in 2015
U.S. U-20 vs. El Salvador, January 24
Paul Arriola (7) celebrates his goal in a World Cup qualifying playoff match vs. El Salvador. The U.S. U-20s cemented their place in the World Cup with a 2-0 win. They drew host New Zealand, Ukraine and Myanmar in their summer group.
USMNT vs. Chile, January 28
Bobby Wood flies high in the USA's 3-2 loss to Chile, which opened the calendar year for the national team. Brek Shea and Jozy Altidore scored in the loss.
USMNT vs. Panama, February 8
Gyasi Zardes and Clint Dempsey celebrate after combining for a goal against Panama at StubHub Center to cap off winter training camp with a 2-0 victory.
USWNT vs. France, February 8
Lori Chalupny (left) and the USWNT had a tough time keeping pace with Jessica Houara (center) and France in a 2-0 loss in a friendly in Lorient. The match was the first of two played without suspended goalkeeper Hope Solo.
USWNT vs. England, February 13
Alex Morgan celebrates scoring the lone goal in the USWNT's 1-0 win over England in a friendly at Stadium mk in Milton Keynes.
USWNT vs. Norway, March 4
The USWNT opens the Algarve Cup with a 2-1 win over Norway, marking Hope Solo's return from a 30-day suspension with a come-from-behind victory. Carli Lloyd scored both goals for the Americans.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, March 6
Alex Morgan celebrates her goal in the USWNT's 3-0 win over Switzerland in the Algarve Cup group stage.
USWNT vs. Iceland, March 9
Alex Morgan and the USWNT were frustrated by Iceland, held to a 0-0 draw to wrap up group play at the Algarve Cup. The result was still enough to put the Americans in the final against France.
USWNT vs. France, March 11
The U.S. women's national team celebrates winning the Algarve Cup after a 2-0 triumph over France. Julie Johnston and Christen Press scored, and Hope Solo saved a penalty kick.
U.S. U-17 vs. Jamaica, March 15
The U.S. U-17 national team celebrates qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup after defeating Jamaica on penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw in a playoff match.
USMNT vs. Denmark, March 25
U.S. goalkeeper Nick Rimando expresses his frustration after one of Nicklas Bendtner's three goals in Denmark's 3-2 win over the Americans. Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson scored for the USA.
USMNT vs. Switzerland, March 31
Jozy Altidore watches as Brek Shea hits a perfect free kick to put the USA on the board against Switzerland. The Americans settled for a 1-1 draw.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, April 4
Lori Chalupny (16) celebrates her goal vs. New Zealand with Lauren Holiday at St. Louis's Busch Stadium. The goal opened the floodgates for a late outburst en route to a 4-0 U.S. victory in front of more than 35,000 fans.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Jordan Morris etched his name in U.S.-Mexico lore, as the Stanford University forward scored in his first senior national team start to break a scoreless draw against El Tri at the Alamodome.
USMNT vs. Mexico, April 15
Juan Agudelo collapses to the ground in celebration after his goal at the Alamodome gave the USA a familiar lead over Mexico: Dos-a-Cero.
U.S. U-23 vs. Mexico, April 22
Real Salt Lake's Luis Gil captains the USA to a 3-0 win over Mexico at StubHub Center in Olympic qualifying preparation for both CONCACAF favorites.
USWNT vs. Ireland, May 10
Abby Wambach celebrates one of her two goals vs. Ireland as the USWNT took a 3-0 win on Mother's Day at Avaya Stadium.
USWNT vs. Mexico, May 17
Sydney Leroux is congratulated by her teammates after one of her two goals in a 5-1 pre-World Cup rout of Mexico at StubHub Center.
U.S. U-20 vs. Myanmar, May 30
Maki Tall celebrates his equalizer for the USA as part of a come-from-behind 2-1 win over Myanmar to open the U-20 World Cup group stage in New Zealand.
USWNT vs. South Korea, May 30
Carli Lloyd gets off a shot through traffic in the USA's final World Cup send-off friendly, a 0-0 draw against South Korea at Red Bull Arena.
U.S. U-23 in Toulon Tournament, May-June
Alonso Hernandez, left, takes on Qatar, while Julian Green, right, vies for the ball against France in the Toulon Tournament as part of Olympic qualifying preparations.
U.S. U-20 vs. New Zealand, June 2
Gedion Zelalem controls the ball against New Zealand in the USA's 4-0 win that cemented a place in the U-20 World Cup knockout stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Ukraine, June 5
From left, Joel Soñora, Gedion Zelalem and Rubio Rubin show frustration during a 3-0 loss to Ukraine that wrapped up group play in the U-20 World Cup.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
DeAndre Yedlin and Danny Williams salute each other after the latter's goal–his first international strike–brought the U.S. level with the Netherlands at 3-3 in the 89th minute.
USMNT vs. Netherlands, June 5
Bobby Wood puts the finishing touch on an epic comeback, with his 90th-minute strike capping a wild 4-3 win for the USA over the Netherlands. The USA trailed 3-1 in the 71st minute.
U.S. U-23 vs. England, June 7
USA defender Boyd Okwuonu makes a tackle on England's Duncan Watmore in the Toulon Tournament third-place game. The U.S. U-23s won 2-1, sealing their best finish in the tournament.
USWNT vs. Australia, June 8, WWC
Megan Rapinoe lets out a yell after her second goal, which sealed the USA's 3-1 win over Australia to open Group D play in the Women's World Cup.
U.S. U-20 vs. Colombia, June 10
Rubio Rubin celebrates the goal that gives the USA a 1-0 win over Colombia in the FIFA U-20 World Cup round of 16. Zack Steffen's late penalty save preserved the win, as the Americans reached the quarterfinals for the first time since 2007.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
Michael Bradley was everywhere against World Cup champion Germany, assisting on Mix Diskerud's equalizer and commanding the midfield in a 2-1 win in Cologne.
USMNT vs. Germany, June 10
For the second straight game, Bobby Wood came off the bench and scored a stunning winner. He watches his long-range blast beat Ron-Robert Zieler in a 2-1 win over world No. 1 Germany.
USWNT vs. Sweden, June 12
Julie Johnston wins the header in a dominant showing on the U.S. back line, helping the Americans preserve a 0-0 draw against Sweden in the second game of the Women's World Cup group stage.
U.S. U-20 vs. Serbia, June 13
U.S. players' emotions say it all after a gut-wrenching loss to Serbia in penalty kicks at the U-20 World Cup. After a 0-0 draw, the Americans fell 6-5 in PKs, despite Zack Steffen's two saves in sudden death.
USWNT vs. Nigeria, June 16
Abby Wambach leaps for joy after scoring in the 45th minute off Megan Rapinoe's corner kick, which delivered a 1-0 win to the USA and first place in Group D of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Colombia, June 22
Alex Morgan's goal broke a 0-0 draw, provided relief after Abby Wambach's PK miss and helped the U.S. women to the World Cup quarterfinals after a 2-0 win over Colombia in the round of 16.
USWNT vs. China, June 26
While Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates her goal in the distance, stalwart center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn rejoice in the goal that put the USA into the semifinals of the Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Germany, June 30
Carli Lloyd yells in celebration after scoring the penalty that put the USA up over Germany en route to a 2-0 victory in the Women's World Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, July 3
DeAndre Yedlin and Jozy Altidore, wearing special jerseys with stars-and-stripes numbers for July 4, celebrate after a Guatemala own goal gifts the USA a 1-0 lead during a 4-0 win in Nashville, Tennessee, prior to the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Carli Lloyd sets the tone with a third-minute goal in the Women's World Cup final against Japan, the first of her three strikes within 16 minutes that lifted the USA to a 5-2 win and its first title in 16 years.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
U.S. players rush the field after the final whistle, which sealed their 5-2 triumph over Japan and a record third World Cup title.
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
USWNT vs. Japan, July 5
Victorious, the U.S. women's national team raises the World Cup trophy for the third time, but the first in 16 years, after completing a 5-2 win over Japan in the final at Vancouver's BC Place.
USMNT vs. Honduras, July 7
Clint Dempsey leaps in celebration of his second goal in the USA's Gold Cup opener against Honduras. The Americans won 2-1, fending off a late Honduras surge to collect all three points in the start of their title defense.
USA vs. Haiti, July 10
Clint Dempsey (8) is congratulated by his teammates after a 47th-minute goal gave the USA a 1-0 win over Haiti in the Gold Cup. Gyasi Zardes, second from left, came on at halftime and assisted, and the win clinched first place in Group A.
USMNT vs Panama, July 13
Clint Dempsey, left, and Michael Bradley, right, celebrate after the latter's goal in the USA's 1-1 draw vs. Panama, which wrapped up group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
USMNT vs. Cuba, July 18
The U.S. men put on a clinic against an overmatched Cuba in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, with Clint Dempsey's hat trick leading the way in a 6-0 rout. Gyasi Zardes, Aron Johannsson and Omar Gonzalez also scored.
USMNT vs. Jamaica, July 22
A downtrodden Clint Dempsey and Jurgen Klinsmann walk off the field as Jamaica celebrates a stunning 2-1 win over the USA in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals.
USMNT vs. Panama, July 25
Michael Bradley walks away in dismay after having a penalty saved in a PK shootout in the USA's loss to Panama in the Gold Cup third-place game. After a 1-1 draw, Panama prevailed 3-2 in PKs, the USA's first shootout in 10 years.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 16
Meghan Klingenberg waves a Terrible Towel in her hometown of Pittsburgh after scoring one of the USA's many goals in an 8-0 rout of Costa Rica in its first game since winning the 2015 Women's World Cup.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, August 19
Alex Morgan and Kelley O'Hara celebrate during a second rout of Costa Rica in three days, this one a 7-2 win in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
USA U-23 vs. England U-21, Sept. 3
U.S. U-23 goalkeeper Zack Steffen looks on in disappointment as England U-21 forward James Wilson celebrates with Duncan Watmore after scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 friendly win in England.
USMNT vs. Peru, Sept. 4
Jozy Altidore, right, is congratulated after one of his two goals that sparked the USA's come-from-behind win over Peru at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
USA U-23 vs. Qatar, Sept. 8
Gedion Zelalem made his U-23 debut off the bench in the USA's 2-0 win over Qatar in England in the final tune-up before Olympic qualifying
USMNT vs. Brazil, Sept. 8
Neymar and Marcelo celebrate while DeAndre Yedlin and Ventura Alvarado look away in disgust during Brazil's 4-1 rout of the USA at Gillette Stadium.
USWNT vs. Haiti, Sept. 17, 20
Carli Lloyd scored hat tricks in both games and NWSL Golden Boot winner Crystal Dunn scored her first international goals as the USWNT beat Haiti 5-0 and 8-0 in a pair of friendlies in Detroit and Birmingham, Alabama. Haiti replaced on-strike Australia as a last-minute opponent.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 1
Jerome Kiesewetter, left, and Emerson Hyndman, right, sandwich Jordan Morris after his first-minute goal in the USA's 3-1 win over Canada in their Olympic qualifying opener.
USA U-23 vs. Cuba, October 3
Cameron Carter-Vickers gets congratulated by Jerome Kiesewetter and Emerson Hyndman after opening the scoring in a 6-1 rout of Cuba in their Olympic qualifying match. The USA cemented its place in the semifinal round with the win.
USA U-23 vs. Panama, October 6
There was plenty of credit to go around, as the Americans finished off a perfect group run in Olympic qualifying with a 4-0 win over Panama. Jordan Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter came on at halftime and provided the spark needed to seize the three points.
USA U-23 vs. Honduras, October 10
Wil Trapp's reaction says it all, as the USA failed to secure an automatic berth to the 2016 Olympics after falling to Honduras 2-0 in the semifinals of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Captain Michael Bradley leads the USA out onto the field ahead of the Americans' CONCACAF Cup playoff vs. Mexico at the Rose Bowl.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Geoff Cameron beats Rafa Marquez to the spot and heads home a 15th-minute equalizer off a free kick from Michael Bradley, negating a Chicharito goal five minutes earlier in the CONCACAF Cup playoff between USA and Mexico.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
U.S. forward Bobby Wood celebrates his 108th-minute goal vs. Mexico that brought the Americans level at 2-2 after Oribe Peralta had given El Tri the lead in extra time. That reprieve would only last for 10 minutes, though.
USMNT vs. Mexico, October 10
Jermaine Jones falls to his knees in disappointment as Mexico celebrates after Paul Aguilar's sensational volley in extra time captured the CONCACAF Cup for El Tri and sends the U.S. rival to the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.
USA U-23 vs. Canada, October 13
Marc Pelosi (15) celebrates after his goal breaks the deadlock and sends the U.S. U-23s on their way to a 2-0 win over Canada in CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying third-place game. The U.S. still has a chance to reach Rio, but it'll have to go through Colombia in a playoff.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, October 13
Tim Howard can't watch as Costa Rica players celebrate Joel Campbell's goal in a 1-0 friendly win at Red Bull Arena. The match marked Howard's return to the U.S. goal for the first time since the 2014 World Cup round of 16.
USA U-17 vs. Nigeria, October 17
Victor Osimhen scores for Nigeria in a 2-0 win over the USA in the teams' FIFA Under-17 World Cup opener in Chile.
USA U-17 vs. Croatia, October 20
USA U-17 midfielder Christian Pulisic watches his opening goal find the back of the net in the Americans' 2-2 draw with Croatia at the World Cup. The U.S. led 2-0 on Pulisic's goal and assist to Brandon Vazquez, but the European side mounted a furious rally to salvage a point.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 21
Shannon Boxx, right, passes off the captain's armband to Carli Lloyd in her final act as a player, riding into retirement in the first half of a 1-1 draw against Brazil in Seattle.
USA U-17 vs. Chile, October 23
USA U-17 captain Hugo Arellano sits dejected after a 4-1 loss to host Chile eliminated the Americans from the World Cup in the group stage.
USWNT vs. Brazil, October 25
The USA said goodbye to two more veterans, with Lauren Holiday, left, and Lori Chalupny ending their careers during a 2-1 win over Brazil in Orlando. The team improved to 5-0-1 on its World Cup victory tour with the win.
USWNT at the White House, October 27
President Barack Obama welcomes the World Cup-champion USWNT to the White House, honoring their triumph in Canada.
USMNT vs. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, November 13
Jozy Altidore watches one of his shots head toward goal in the USA's 6-1 win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the opening of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Altidore scored twice, as the USA overcame a shocking early deficit and won at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.
USMNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, November 17
Gyasi Zardes and the U.S. men were held to a 0-0 draw by Trinidad and Tobago in Port of Spain, closing the year with a World Cup qualifying and sitting atop Group C in the semifinal round via goal differential tiebreaker.
USWNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, December 10
Christen Press triumphantly raises her hand after a goal during her hat trick in a 6-0 rout of Trinidad & Tobago at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
USWNT vs. China, December 13
Crystal Dunn leaves her feet to settle a pass in the USA's 2-0 win over China at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Dunn and Christen Press scored the goals.
USWNT vs. China, December 16
Abby Wambach is introduced in the U.S. lineup for the last time at the Superdome in New Orleans, playing in her final match before retiring. She ends her U.S. career with 255 appearances and an international-record 184 goals.