It is finally the moment of truth for Jurgen Klinsmann. Well, almost. Klinsmann has spent the year since the World Cup (that one where the US got out of the group of death) tinkering with the US first team constantly, much to the annoyance of some USMNT fans. Testing new players, new formations, bringing back players who hadn’t been capped in a while, making lots of substitutions, driving people on Twitter insane. All along, winning the Gold Cup this summer has been the goal, but that was lost in all the experimenting Klinsmann has done at times. US fans want results, and they want them every time the team steps on the field. A string of games in early 2015 where the US gave up late goals to either draw or lose caused a lot of hand wringing. Now the US has its final tune-up against Guatemala Friday early evening before the Gold Cup kicks off Tuesday against Honduras. Klinsmann has been very open that the Gold Cup has been the end goal all along, and that each of the matches that has been played since Salvador just over a year ago with the Gold Cup in mind.
“It would be foolish not to use this one year of time to try out a lot of things,” Klinsmann said at the conclusion of his side’s European camp in late March. “To integrate new players, to tryout different systems, to move out of your comfort zone going to Europe, going to other places and risking some results. If we wouldn’t do that, there’d be no growth. If we would just be comfortable and play all of our games in the U.S. against teams we’d most likely beat, there is no growth. It’s very important that we understand that we might do it at the expense of some results.” Winning the Gold Cup is key as it would guarantee the US a spot in the 2017 Confederations Cup, the best possible prep for the 2018 World Cup. I’m glad he has tinkered and tested. Friendlies are still just that, no matter how painful it can be to lose a game in the last five minutes. They are opportunities for the team to grow, for weaknesses to be exposed and dealt with, and for new players to be tested and figure out how they fit into the team. The last run of results matter as little as the first part of 2015 did, even though it seemed like much progress had been made in those most recent US matches. The matches against Germany and the Netherlands really weren’t great prep for the Gold Cup, at least not for what the US will face at any point before the semifinal. Teams like Haiti and Panama are not likely to attack the US like Germany did, but to defend and counter. The US will have to take the game to many of the teams in the Gold Cup, until they face someone like Costa Rica or Mexico.
There are still some questions to be answered as the US takes on Guatemala, starting with the back line. Will Klinsmann stick with the promising pair of Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks at center back? Both are very talented, but are young and occasionally prone to mental lapses. These lapses might not be punished early in the tournament but would likely be later on against better teams. Alvarado in particular has come on quite quickly, getting his first cap in March of 2015, starting against Mexico in a game the US won 2-0, and establishing himself in the lineup since then. Or will Alvarado pair with Omar Gonzalez, who he started alongside in that match against Mexico? Will Alvarado’s facial hair be up to par with the beards that Brooks and Gonzalez have been known to rock? Perhaps Klinsmann has other plans at center back after calling Tim Ream in as well. My money is on Brooks and Alvarado, but we will see.
Left back is another interesting dilemma. When the roster was originally announced, Fabian Johnson was the only clear cut left back option, but when Brad Davis got hurt recently, Greg Garza was added to the mix. This gives Klinsmann a true left back to go along with Johnson, who might be the USMNT’s best option at both left back and on the left side of the midfield. It seems that against teams where the US will have to do more to unlock the opposition’s defense that Johnson is likely to start at left back, as the attacking presence he offers from the back line significantly surpasses what Garza has to offer. The combination of the two down the left is a very tantalizing option as well.
In front of them, the big question is how and where does everyone fit? With Beckerman, Bradley, and Bedoya likely starters and both Zardes and Johannsson coming off very impressive performances against Germany and the Netherlands, how do Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey fit into the lineup? One would think that Zardes is the odd man out, but he might be the only one who naturally provides width with this group. Do Johannsson and Dempsey fill too much of the same space on the field? Or does Altidore start on the bench and turn into a super sub, similar to the role that DeAndre Yedlin is likely to play. Johannsson tends to move off the ball better than Altidore and creates more space for other players, which is often important against teams looking to bunker down and defend. I am very interested to see if Altidore, Johannsson, and Dempsey are all utilized at the same time, and if so, how. Could this mean that Bradley is pushed deeper, away from the attacking role he has consistently been playing for the US over the last year?
The match against Guatemala should give everyone an idea of how Klinsmann plans on approaching the Gold Cup. Expect an exciting offensive approach that ties together much of what Klinsmann has been preaching and testing over the past year. After all, it’s finally show time.