By IVES GALARCEP
It may just be a friendly, and isn’t likely to be played in front of the biggest crowd, but tonight’s 2013-opening match for the U.S. Men’s National Team carries more weight than any January match in recent memory.
When the USMNT takes on Canada tonight (9pm, ESPN2) they will be playing more than just a friendly. They will be playing the first match in what is shaping up to be a busy and important year, and they will be playing a warm-up match one week before the start of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. A match that will likely determine who some of the starters will be when the United States travels to Honduras in a week.
For Jurgen Klinsmann, the match represents his only chance to see some new faces in action before settling on the final roster for the trip to San Pedro Sula, really the only chance to see some fringe players before summer approaches and more qualifiers and the Gold Cup hit the schedule.
More importantly, tonight’s friendly could help confirm the identities of some of the U.S. team’s starters for the Honduras match, and could help some players grab a hold of regular roles on the national team.
On that list of potential qualifying starters are Eddie Johnson and Graham Zusi, who both played key role in 2012 qualifying, as well as Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who are both vying for a place higher up on the centerback depth chart.
Then you have a veteran like Brad Davis, who has caught Klinsmann’s attention with his quality on the left flank. Davis had been considered too old in some circles to still be a viable national team candidate, but Klinsmann has made it clear the Houston star has made the most of his latest opportunity.
So what should we watch for in tonight’s friendly? Here are some key subjects to focus on:
THE CENTERBACK AUDITIONS
Gonzalez and Besler came into the January camp considered two leading candidates to content for playing time in qualifying if they could impress Klinsmann. All indications are that both have impressed and are likely to start against Canada.
Gonzalez is the front-runner in the group, with his size, strength and dominance in the air. Besler is more of a finesse centerback, arguably a better passer but not as imposing physically. There is still a good chance that Klinsmann could call on Geoff Cameron and Carlos Bocanegra to start vs. Honduras, but if for some reason one of those two can’t start, Gonzalez looks like the best bet to step in and start. That is assuming he can put in a strong showing tonight vs. Canada.
WAITING ON THE WINGS
The lack of quality wing options is one of the big issues facing the USMNT heading into 2013, a situation brought on by Landon Donovan being in limbo, Clint Dempsey being more of a forward option these days and Brek Shea recovering from a broken foot.
Enter the likes of Zusi, Davis, Josh Gatt and Alejandro Bedoya. Though Klinsmann’s preferred 4-3-3 formation features wide forward roles rather than the traditional wing roles in a 4-4-2, players like Gatt, Bedoya and Zusi have the characteristics to be able to handle the work that goes into playing as wide forwards who can whip in service as well as take on defenders.
Davis is an interesting one. He is probably better suited to playing centrally in the 4-3-3 than as a wide forward, but his service from the left flank makes him an intriguing option there. A healthy and in-form Brek Shea is probably the most ideally-suited player in the pool for that role, while Eddie Johnson looked very good playing in that very spot in 2012 qualifying.
If Davis is more likely to feature centrally, then he faces much stiffer competition for a more long-standing role on the national team. For more dynamic players like Bedoya and Zusi, their ability to play both centrally and out wide in the 4-3-3 system give them each better chances of earning regular spot on the national team.
Just who Klinsmann starts at forward against Canada won’t necessarily tell us who he plans on taking to Honduras, but it should let us know who has impressed him the most in camp.
The current form of the forward quartet of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd and Herculez Gomez could very well mean that only one of the current forwards in camp earns a call-up to Honduras. If healthy, Eddie Johnson should be that player, with Juan Agudelo a possibility as a bench option. Beyond that the competition is for places in the pecking order for the summer, when more qualifiers and the CONCACAF Gold Cup will mean a need for a new batch of forwards.
Chris Wondolowski and Will Bruin should get their chances to shine against Canada, and given the lack of quality in Canada’s defense, they could be in for big days. Could either play their way into a trip to Honduras? Barring injuries, that seems unlikely.
Though Wondolowski and Bruin seem more likely to start, Agudelo feels like a better bet to be able to book a trip to Honduras if he can show Klinsmann an ability to make an impact off the bench once again, as he did against Russia. Klinsmann knows how important it is to have players who can provide a real spark off the bench.
THE RIGHT MIDFIELD MIX
With Canada featuring veterans like Dwayne DeRosario in midfield, it is a safe bet Klinsmann will be fielding an experienced midfield, with Kyle Beckerman and Benny Feilhaber candidates to start. He could trot out Zusi at the tip of the diamond, but there is also the possibility of giving Mix Diskerud the start. Given the fact he might need to start one of these central midfield options against Honduras don’t expect Klinsmann to go with youth in the middle of the park.
If Diskerud gets a start, it would tell us he’s closer to a place in the World Cup qualifying conversation, but he will still need to stand out against Canada to have any chance of a trip to Honduras.
THE CANADA CHALLENGE
Anyone who watched Canada be dismantled by a Denmark B team on Saturday knows that this Canada squad is young and inexperienced. There are some quality veterans in the mix, DeRosario, but the defense is very young and could be even more vulnerable without the support of veteran goalkeeper Lars Hirschfield, who suffered an injury in Canada’s loss to Denmark.
On the surface a USA blowout seems inevitable, but you can rest assured the Canadians will be looking to atone for their awful showing against Denmark, and any match against the Americans is going to bring out a better effort from our neighbors to the north. The defense is likely to have trouble with a potential trio of Eddie Johnson, Chris Wondolowski and either Will Bruin or Zusi, but the real question is whether Canada’s attack can generate chances after looking so toothless against the Danes. Dwayne DeRosario is sure to bring something special to a match being played in Houston, but with the likely trio of Beckerman, Gonzalez and Besler to deal with, the D.C. United star could have a tough time seeing much daylight.
The key for the Americans will be controlling tempo and working the flanks. If this match is to be an audition for those who want to take part in the Honduras friendly, then finding success on the flanks and showing good organization and quality defensively will be the most important keys for the U.S. team. Canada might not have the attack to provide the stiffest test to the U.S. defense, but the wings are where Klinsmann will be looking for someone to make some magic happen.
PROJECTED USMNT LINEUP
Here is the lineup I see Klinsmann trotting out
Klinsmann could go with A.J. De La Garza at right back but I think Morales turned enough heads in camp to merit a start. Will Bruin and Brad Davis are also options to start but seem more likely to come off the bench.
Klinsmann could also decide that he’s seen enough of Eddie Johnson and Graham Zusi and doesn’t need to start them, which would open the door for Bruin and Davis to start in their home stadium though Diskerud is definitely an option to start in the attacking midfield role in place of Zusi.
What do you think of tonight’s USA-Canada match? Who are you most looking forward to watching play? What do you think of the projected starting lineup? What do you see the final score being?
Share your thoughts below.