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Three big questions facing USMNT ahead of playoff showdown vs. Mexico

Three big questions face the USMNT ahead of Saturday's CONCACAF Cup playoff vs. Mexico. Brian Straus runs them down and provides some answers.

For coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. national team, Saturday’s Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico is as much a reprieve as it is an opportunity.

Before this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, Klinsmann said that his year of post-World Cup tinkering had resulted in a squad “full of quality." He called it a “very, very strong group that can win this prestigious tournament.” Instead, the U.S. stumbled to its worst finish in 15 years, failing to impress during a 2-0-1 group stage then falling to Jamaica in the semifinal and Panama in the bronze-medal game.

In the past, that would have ruled the Americans out of the Confederations Cup. But CONCACAF’s decision to split its berth between the 2013 and 2015 continental champs left Klinsmann with a lifeline. Now, instead of pondering an embarrassing summer or preparing to face the likes of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in World Cup qualifying, the manager has another shot at a ticket to Russia and another chance to name, organize and field a team that can win now.

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The stage will be big—the Rose Bowl has sold out for Saturday’s game—and the opponent tougher than any the U.S. faced at the Gold Cup. The manager has selected his 23-man team and now has less than a week to establish the lineup and tactics that will erase this summer’s sour aftertaste and send the U.S. to to the Confederations Cup. Klinsmann and the U.S. face some big questions this week.

Here are three:

What’s at stake for Klinsmann and his players?

Klinsmann has raised the stakes and the tension. The U.S. has played bigger games than Saturday’s, and it’s played them under Klinsmann. Certainly every match last summer in Brazil was more important, and the World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico in March 2013 arguably were as well. Those four points sent a discombobulated U.S. on to first place in the Hexagonal and a Gold Cup title.

The U.S. also has played more important games against El Tri in recent years. The 2011 and 2007 Gold Cup finals were for the continental championship and a spot in the Confederations Cup. Saturday’s showdown offers only the latter. Don’t let the marketing fool you—Mexico will remain the CONCACAF champion until at least 2017 regardless of the Rose Bowl result.

But the 2015 Gold Cup failure, the resulting scrutiny and the legitimate value of the Confederations Cup to nations that rarely play the world’s elite in official competition has resulted in a ratcheting up of rhetoric.

Klinsmann said the playoff represents, “An opportunity that will not come back to you anymore in your career … It will stay with you for the rest of your life. They can be excited about it and always look back and say, ‘I was there that special day.’”

He added, “This will be a game that for the next two or three years to come is probably the biggest game,” and, “It’s a unique opportunity for every player to really write a piece of history.”

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Those words will make victory feel like a massive and historic achievement. But they’re setting up the U.S. for a precipitous fall if it loses. There typically are consequences to blowing a chance to “write a piece of history.” It’s worth noting that Klinsmann works inside a comfort zone he denies his players and which certainly doesn’t exist for peers around the world. He’s under very little pressure and has the long-term, public backing of U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, win or lose.

Klinsmann is here on a long-term mandate, and he issued public warnings this week that defeat at the Rose Bowl could spark an overhaul.

“I think it’s really an interesting moment now because you have a core group of players that are kind of running out of time and I just want them to just embrace that moment,” he said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A. “All these guys in their thirties, they need to realize, ‘You know what? I’m may not be getting these opportunities any more. This is it.’”

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He told ESPN, "I will definitely tell the players once they come into camp. 'Whoever is over 30 here, this might be your last final representing your country.' I'm not saying they're not good enough anymore—this will obviously be our best team—just that they're not getting any younger, and younger players are pushing through. So I want them to understand and grab this unique opportunity. They have to look at it like if they don't win this game, there might not be another."

Klinsmann always has been enamored of youth, and a loss on Saturday may prompt him to fully embrace it. He surely knows that the last summer's World Cup squad featured more players in their 30s than Germany’s 2014 champions and Spain’s 2010 winners combined. There are 10 players aged 30+ now in camp with the U.S. in California and the likes of Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler and Alejandro Bedoya will be at least 30 by the time the 2018 World Cup rolls around.

Saturday’s game could mark a turning point for the national team in more ways than one.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Bradley played down the apocalyptic tone. For the players, the upcoming 90 minutes has to take precedence over the bigger picture.

"I don't think it's a game that defines anything in a long-term sense," he said. "Because of the way it's been built up, it has a big-time game feel, and it is a big-time game, but if we win, we start World Cup qualifying in November, and if we lose we still start World Cup qualifying in November. It's reality."

Klinsmann and Bradley certainly will. Who joins them, and how the U.S. prepares for the 2018 World Cup, very well could be heavily influenced by Saturday’s result. Klinsmann has insisted we confront the bigger picture and has piled on the pressure. And he remains the boss.

What did we learn from the Gold Cup?

We learned that the U.S. hasn't improved since the summer of 2014 and, if anything, is even less sure of itself now than it was a year ago. Landon Donovan’s 2014 departure and Klinsmann’s frequent experimentation with new formations, players and assignments stripped the national team of its identity. That likely was by the coach's design. But it's still unclear what this team looks like when it’s playing its best, or who should be on the field for it to do so.

The dynamic, creative and proactive soccer Klinsmann wants to play requires time and the right personnel. In Klinsmann’s defense, he may not have had enough of either. So for now, this remains a team in transition.

That’s especially true in back. Klinsmann’s greatest post-World Cup failure has been his inability to develop consistency and chemistry in defense.

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This year he’s tried a three-man back line and Jermaine Jones at center back, and then he called DaMarcus Beasley out of retirement. In 16 games in 2015, the U.S. has used 13 back-four alignments. Klinsmann’s inability or unwillingness to see that the partnership between Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks wasn’t working at the Gold Cup proved to be a big part of the Americans’ undoing. The pair wasn't ready.

Klinsmann said this week, “I think team unity, chemistry, the atmosphere between the players, the bonding, is huge in this game. It’s probably one of the key factors in order to win … I think the word chemistry is huge approaching that Mexico game.”

He meant off the field as much as on, but nowhere is it more important than in defense. His best chance of finding it lies with veterans who’ve played together before (more on that below).

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In attack, we learned at the Gold Cup that Clint Dempsey, 32, remains the only reliable international goal scorer in the U.S. player pool. That’s surprising after four years under Klinsmann, who was one of the sport’s most accomplished strikers in his day. Jozy Altidore has the talent but has been beset by injuries and, as he revealed to ESPN, “personal issues” that have made the past two years the “hardest” of his life.

Aron Jóhannsson is another player with obvious talent, but he’s also failed to make a consistent international impact (he’ll miss the playoff with an injury). Chris Wondolowski remains a serviceable reserve while others, like Jordan Morris, Rubio Rubin and Bobby Wood, are just kicking off their national team careers.

Dempsey scored seven of the U.S.’s 12 goals at the Gold Cup. As he goes, so goes the attack.

In midfield, questions remain about how the U.S. plays best. Klinsmann is committed to pushing Bradley high. Although the captain has improved there over the past year and certainly has the ability to set the table for a striker, it’s still not his ideal position. That’s clear when watching the U.S. struggle to build out of the back as Klinsmann wants.

When playing behind the forwards, Bradley is unavailable as a deep-lying outlet or as a conduit between the defense and front-runners. He can’t necessarily play the pass that relieves pressure or which prevents a turnover in the American half. That was crystal clear in last month’s 4-1 loss to Brazil, during which Bradley was positioned behind a lone U.S. forward and his team was overrun behind him.

Klinsmann has a brilliant deep-lying center midfielder in Bradley, two true defensive midfielders in Kyle Beckerman and Danny Williams and a box-to-box wild card in Jermaine Jones.

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There is no genuine playmaker—Mix Diskerud hasn’t blossomed in the role, Alejandro Bedoya seems more comfortable out wide and Benny Feilhaber and Lee Nguyen are in the wilderness. Klinsmann desires versatility and adaptability. He doesn’t want static roles or responsibilities because game states evolve and opponents change. But in a winner-take-all match, there should be a sense that there’s at least one reliable permutation or system. It was not revealed at the Gold Cup.

But there’s time to find something that works, and Bradley said what’s past isn’t necessarily prologue.

“Nobody’s worried about anything that’s gone on up until now,” he told reporters. “When you play in games when everything is on the line, games against your biggest rival, form goes out the window. Everything that has happened in the months leading up to it, what you’ve achieved, what’s been written, what’s been said, means nothing.”

Can the U.S. beat Mexico?

Of course. It does so regularly. In fact, the Americans are 3-0-3 against El Tri under Klinsmann, and that includes the program’s first win at the Estadio Azteca and a 1-0-1 mark in World Cup qualifying.

Mexico faces its share of issues as well. It was poor at the Gold Cup and didn’t play well until a final it was very fortunate to reach. It has an interim coach and more significant injury concerns than the U.S: Andrés Guardado (ankle) and Rafa Márquez (groin) are ailing and Giovani dos Santos already has been ruled out.

The Americans’ familiarity with Mexico and the confidence that follows a four-year run of success against its rival should be a boost at the Rose Bowl. It also should be a guidepost. By reaching back to what’s worked before, Klinsmann can put his team in position to record a massive win.

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In back, he’ll have to improvise—but not too much. Brooks is out injured and Omar Gonzalez wasn’t called in, meaning another new center back tandem must be established. Either Brooks or Gonzalez started in 13 of 16 games this year, and Gonzalez has been a critical contributor in each of the past four games against Mexico. His experience likely would've been helpful. But Klinsmann can look back to the 2014 World Cup in his search for established chemistry.

There, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron anchored a back four featuring fullbacks Beasley and Johnson against both Ghana and Portugal. Those are four veterans who won’t be intimidated by the occasion.

In midfield, the U.S. has found success against Mexico when Bradley plays behind at least two attackers. In the 0-0 draw at Azteca in 2013, he was deployed alongside Maurice Edu and in the past two friendlies, Bradley supported two forwards while Beckerman patrolled the space behind. Letting Bradley sit a bit deeper so he’s in position to track Mexican counterparts while helping to establish possession and rhythm would give the U.S. the stability it needs. Dempsey has demonstrated a willingness and ability to retreat, find the ball and help set the tone in the attack. Bradley shouldn’t be required to fill that space as well.

On the flanks, the U.S. has used grafters like Bedoya, Diskerud, Graham Zusi and Brad Davis in recent games against El Tri. As much as Klinsmann prefers the speed and improvisation of Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin, they may not be suitable for a game in which Mexico will have a lot of the ball and where Johnson and Beasley can overlap. Jones certainly can tuck in and fill one spot (like he did at the World Cup), especially with Beckerman or Williams in support.

Putting players in spots where they’ve had success before will inspire both chemistry and confidence. There’s nothing wrong with a comfort zone, at least in front of 90,000 fans in a do-or-die game.