In recent World Cup years, March international fixture dates have provided an opportunity for a closer look at what might be the strongest U.S. men's national team possible ahead of the tournament. In 2002, 2006 and 2010, U.S. coaches took strong teams to European friendlies, teams invariably made up of projected starters, usually with a majority of the players based in Europe and only a few from MLS.
Times have changed with the USA. Instead of being an A Team showcase, the current March friendly is a tryout for a large group of European-based players who could be facing their last chance to impress Jurgen Klinsmann before he starts making final World Cup roster decisions. Now, more than half of the projected starters on the U.S. team are based in MLS, and two of that contingent’s best players (Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey) are being called in to help prop up a relatively weak contingent of European-based options.
Including Bradley and Dempsey actually gives Klinsmann the opportunity to put out a front six that could very well challenge for the role of starting attack. Jozy Altidore remains the likely option up top, while Dempsey, Aron Johannsson and Alejandro Bedoya could slot into attacking midfield roles in a 4-2-3-1 formation. That leaves Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones sliding into their normal defensive midfield roles.
Having a chance to see that group together could answer plenty of questions for Klinsmann about his first-choice lineup, but the Ukraine friendly isn’t just about locking down starters. There are plenty of questions to be addressed not only in the handful of days the team will practice together in Frankfurt, Germany, but also with the opportunities Klinsmann will hand out in the form of starting roles and substitute’s appearances.
Here are some questions Klinsmann will be hoping to find good answers to in the next week:
WHICH CENTER BACK WILL SHINE?
Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have settled in comfortably as first-choice central defensive options, while Clarence Goodson appears to have a comfortable hold on the third spot in the depth chart. After that, everything is a crapshoot.
John Brooks had the makings of being an option, but injuries and the loss of his starting job at Hertha Berlin have slowed down his rapid ascent. He has the technical quality to excel on the higher level, but questions remain about his strength and ability to read the game.
Oguchi Onyewu is the only central defender in the U.S. player pool who has actually played in a World Cup, and that experience has to be appealing to Klinsmann. The question Onyewu needs to answer is whether he is physically capable of handling himself against top-end competition.
Will Packwood is a bit of a wildcard, as a 20-year-old starting central defender at Birmingham City. He is very composed for his age, and is similar to Brooks in that he’s a tall and skinny defender with good feet but below-average strength. Packwood is probably more of a long-term project for Klinsmann, but a good camp could boost Packwood’s stock in a central defender pool very much up in the air after the top three.
HOW DO YOU DEPLOY ALTIDORE AND JOHANNSSON TOGETHER?
With every goal Aron Johannsson scores for AZ, and every game Altidore doesn’t score for Sunderland, the questions grow about whether Klinsmann should look to start Johannsson over Altidore. The reality is Klinsmann’s more likely to be trying to figure out how to get them on the field together.
Klinsmann has never shown himself to be a fan of the 4-4-2, so simply partnering the current and former AZ leading scorers together in that system seems unlikely. Whether 4-2-3-1 or more natural 4-3-3, Johannsson would likely be deployed wide. That may not be the ideal option considering some of the other true wide options Klinsmann can consider (like Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan or Bedoya), but this Ukraine match should let us see how he wants to use the tandem. Altidore works best when he’s playing with mobile attack partners who move the ball well. Johannsson has quick feet and a deft touch, though you wonder if Klinsmann won’t be tempted just a little bit to play the tandem in a 4-4-2.
IS CAMERON READY TO BE THE MAN AT RIGHT BACK?
It seems a silly question considering the fact Cameron has started at right back for Stoke City for the better part of two seasons now, and has shown considerable improvement at the position this month. The reason it’s a question is because it has been Brad Evans, and not Cameron, who has held down the starting role for much of the past year.
Evans has been struggling mightily in recent national team appearances, and you get the sense that Klinsmann wants Cameron to win the job more than he wants Evans to simply lose it. Cameron should have his chance to shine against Ukraine, not only defensively, but also by showing he can contribute to the attack. That is something that has been considered a weakness of Cameron's when playing at right back, but he has shown marked improvement getting forward in the Premier League, and the Ukraine friendly should offer him a chance to show how much better he is.
HOW CLOSE IS DANNY WILLIAMS?
It was just short of a year and a half ago when Williams turned in a Man of the Match effort in a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica playing in his natural defensive midfield role. It was a shining moment for a player who had been previously miscast as a wide midfielder by Klinsmann. Williams looked like someone who could develop into a good alternative to the sometimes reckless and inconsistent Jermaine Jones.
Then the World Cup qualifier against Honduras last February happened, and Williams promptly fell out of the national team picture in a flash. A smart move to League Championship side Reading FC has paid dividends, with Williams thriving as a regular starter for the Royals, and playing well enough to earn a call back from Klinsmann.
Williams faces stiff competition in central midfield from the likes of Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, as well as other options such as Sacha Kljestan and potentially Maurice Edu, but a good showing against Ukraine, even in a substitute’s role, could propel him. And with Jones currently in limbo since moving to Besiktas on loan, Williams just might get a chance to start considering he’s actually match fit.
CAN AGUDELO MAKE HIS MARK?
When Juan Agudelo chose Dutch side FC Utrecht over European club options in January, he did so with the hope of impressing Klinsmann. Agudelo has done that be taking hold of a regular starting role and impacting some matches with his wide range of qualities.
Agudelo is still a way’s away from making a run at the current top three in the forward pecking order— Jozy Altidore, Johannsson and Terrence Boyd— but he could get a chance to play alongside Altidore, even if only in training, and potentially show Klinsmann that he is a viable forward partner for Altidore. Agudelo has speed and good touch and passing eye to partner well with Altidore, though Johannsson has positioned himself for a longer look as Altidore’s strike partner.
CAN THE SQUAD WIN OVER JULIAN GREEN?
Call it one big recruiting trip for Bayern Munich youngster Julian Green, who will take part in two days of training with the U.S. team in Frankfurt. He will have a chance to swap stories and pick the brains of not only a slew of German-Americans such as Boyd, Jones, Williams and Fabian Johnson, but also interact with the handful of young players in the camp, such as Agudelo and Packwood.
For many of the players in camp, impressing Klinsmann will be the priority, but for veterans like Dempsey and Tim Howard, making the youngster feel like part of the team will be an important aspect of this short camp. First impressions are very important, and Klinsmann will let his squad know that Green is a special talent who just might come away from this camp feeling like he should commit to the United States if things go well.