Friendly rosters often are built around several, potentially competing principles. National team managers balance their desire to compete over a given 90 minutes with a need to deepen the player pool, gauge the form of those on the fringes of the picture or test new tactics and combinations.
The U.S. squad scheduled to face Peru (Friday in Washington, D.C.) and Brazil (Sept. 8 in Foxborough, Mass.), which was unveiled Sunday by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, does not comprise a typical friendly roster. Instead, it was built with one goal in mind, according to Klinsmann: “To get some answers for how we put things together for the Mexico game a month from now … Our message to these guys is simple. Prove a point that you want to be at the Rose Bowl.”
Thanks to last month’s CONCACAF Gold Cup failure, the U.S. (the 2013 continental champ) must play Mexico (the '15 winner) in a one-game playoff for a spot in the '17 Confederations Cup. Klinsmann considers that game a must-win, and so is dispensing with experimentation and long-term team building for the upcoming friendlies. This is about forging a team that can beat Mexico on Oct. 10 in Pasadena, Calif. Continuity is important—17 players were part of the Gold Cup team (including Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, who will join the U.S. following the Peru game)—and there is only one potential international debutant: German-American forward Andrew Wooten.
“With these games, it is not the time to be patient,” Klinsmann said of the September friendlies. “This is really now time for the guys to make a really strong impression that they understand the situation we’re in because of what happened in the Gold Cup. These games are not about developing things for the future. This is about proving a point towards the Mexico game.”
And there are points to prove. Among the players called in are veterans like Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, who missed out on some or all of the Gold Cup. There are those who didn’t play to their potential, like John Brooks, Ventura Alvarado and Aron Jóhannsson. Injuries have taken their toll as well. Dempsey, who’s returning from a strained hamstring, will miss Friday’s game. And the U.S. has been hit especially hard in defense, where Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler and DaMarcus Beasley all will miss out, leaving the Americans terribly thin at outside back.
“In the last year we gave the younger generation a lot of confidence and a lot of support and a lot of help, which is our job from a coaching standpoint," Klinsmann said. “Now the moment comes and they have to prove it ... They have to go face-to-face with the established guys and try to steal their spot. This is what it’s about now. We will find out if they are ready for it. We have the playoff game for one, and then we have World Cup qualifying [starting in November] which is not experimenting any more. In a certain way you can tell that the transition phase comes to an end and now they need to prove if they are still in the top spot or not.”
Here’s a closer look at Klinsmann’s team for the Peru and Brazil friendlies (NOTE: Players marked with an asterisk will be called in for the Brazil game only).
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire)* William Yarbrough (Club León)
Klinsmann already has said that Guzan, named the Gold Cup’s best goalkeeper, has retained the No. 1 spot despite Howard’s return following a 14-month international sabbatical. Howard, 36, was outstanding in Everton’s 0–0 draw at Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday and will arrive in camp eager to make his case to for the starting role in Pasadena.
Yarbrough, who’s been on the bench at León, will train with the U.S. in Washington then return to Mexico. He’ll be replaced by Johnson, who’s rediscovered his form with the Fire.
Defenders: Ventura Alvarado (Club América), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Greg Garza (Atlas), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham)
The U.S. defense is in upheaval at precisely the wrong time. Klinsmann’s Gold Cup gamble on Alvarado and Brooks didn’t pay off, re-opening the competition for playing time in central defense. There is depth there.
“The heat is on in that position,” Klinsmann said.
It’s far bleaker on the flanks. Johnson, the team’s most consistent defender, is out with an injured calf, and Chander (knee) and Beasley (calf) were hurt this weekend. Brek Shea (hernia) has been sidelined since late June and Seattle Sounders utility man Brad Evans, who played at the Gold Cup and has appeared at outside back on multiple occasions for the U.S., was left off this roster. Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj hasn’t played for the U.S. since late 2013.
Klinsmann badly wanted Cameron to establish himself as a center back at Stoke. Now that he has, he ironically may be asked to return to the wing as he looks to earn his first cap since November. Garza, who was sent home following the Gold Cup’s group stage, is the only outside defender listed on the U.S. roster. Klinsmann is going to have to get creative.
Midfielders: Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)*, Joe Corona (Veracruz), Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Danny Williams (Reading), DeAndre Yedlin (Tottenham Hotspur)
Bradley, the captain, will remain with TFC through its Saturday game at Seattle, then head east to Boston. The U.S. should be fine in central midfield, at least defensively, thanks to the return of Jones and Williams. Jones has recovered from hernia surgery and is set to see his first international action since early February. Williams played well in the June wins over Germany and the Netherlands but missed out on the Gold Cup somewhat surprisingly.
Absent Bradley against the recent Copa América bronze medalist, the U.S. may rely heavily on Bedoya to spark the attack from midfield. He earned his first 2015–16 Ligue 1 start for Nantes in Sunday’s 2–0 loss at Bordeaux. Yedlin is an option out wide but may not be in peak form as he waits for Tottenham to finalize a loan deal. Gyasi Zardes, listed as a forward, has spent time on the wing under Klinsmann. Diskerud, Morales and Corona all are options underneath the forwards or in the channels, but none has distinguished himself recently in a U.S. shirt.
Veterans Graham Zusi, Brad Davis and Kyle Beckerman are among those who didn’t make the cut. Klinsmann said Sunday that Beckerman was nursing an undisclosed injury. He went 90 minutes in Real Salt Lake’s loss at FC Dallas on Saturday.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders)*, Aron Jóhannsson (Werder Bremen), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Andrew Wooten (SV Sandhausen), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
As Dempsey works his way back, Klinsmann will be pleased that Altidore has rediscovered his scoring touch. Sent home from the Gold Cup after he was unable to fight through a bum hamstring, Altidore has scored three goals in TFC’s past two games. He was a substitute in both.
Klinsmann has plenty of options up top. Altidore and Jóhannsson are the likely starters in Dempsey’s absence (especially if Zardes shifts to midfield). Altidore remains indispensable when he’s healthy and confident, and Jóhannsson tallied his first goal for Bremen (a penalty kick) in Sunday’s 2–1 win over Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Wood, the late-game hero against the Netherlands and Germany, is back, along with Wooten, 25, who’s scoring at will for 2. Bundesliga side Sandhausen. Klinsmann deciced that run (five goals in five league games) was too impressive to ignore. That means Chris Wondolowski, who has 12 MLS goals, will miss out next week.
“It's a chance that he has been waiting for a long time, and because he’s on a good run right now he deserves that chance,” Klinsmann said of Wooten. “But he needs to jump in the cold water and right away swim really fast.
“The situation with our forwards is wide open,” Klinsmann continued. “Obviously the most consistent player over the last years with us has always been Clint Dempsey, but Clint right now also has some injury issues and is obviously not the youngest anymore, so we constantly try to develop the next wave of forwards and so far nobody has a real big advantage over another guy. This is really crucial for them to understand. There's a time period to break in and make yourself comfortable and be a part of a group, but there's also a time to understand the moment to step up and build your future in the team.”
That moment, thanks to the high stakes in October, is now.