The tricky thing about the U.S. national team’s traditional winter friendlies is how tempting it can be to read too much into into what we see. Usually, it has been a few months since we have seen the USA play, and the eagerness to have some action to digest, and some players to praise or rip, can sometimes be overwhelming.
Ideally, when you can, you look at individual player performances in the context of their recent efforts to help gauge whether what we see in January is actually a trend, or more a product of the unique elements of January friendlies, such as lack of match fitness and form, or real familiarity with teammates.
Saturday’s match showcased two midfielders who carried over their impressive 2013 national team form into two of the best outings against South Korea. Graham Zusi and Kyle Beckerman have probably done more to boost their national team stock in the past nine months than any other midfielders in the pool, and Saturday they each showed why they look more and more like viable World Cup options.
Zusi has successfully transitioned from fringe World Cup hopeful to near lock and contender for a starting role. What he did against South Korea is what we have come to expect from his national team outings. Good two-way work, impressive workrate and an affinity for helping set up goals. These weren’t just things Zusi showed Saturday. He has been showing them on the national team since breaking into the squad more than a year ago.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann helped shed some light onto one of the more popular storylines heading into Saturday’s friendly: the perceived battle between Zusi and Donovan for a starting role. On Saturday, the tandem worked well together, providing a reminder that it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition.
Beckerman turned in another strong outing in defensive midfield, carrying over from a summer that saw him silence critics who still don’t see him as a viable option for the full U.S. team. There definitely are still some questions to be answered about how he can fare against elite opponents, but with none of his other competition on the defensive midfielder depth chart really thriving during his recent excellent run, Beckerman has clearly made the most of his chances and is looking like a good bet for the World Cup if he can keep things rolling this spring.
Not all of the recent U.S. national team trends that carried over into Saturday’s match were positive ones. Brad Evans endured his latest subpar effort at right back, further losing his grip on the title of “Right Back Revelation.” Every match Evans struggles in leads to more heartburn for U.S. fans fully aware of the Murderers’ Row of wingers awaiting in World Cup Group G.
If Evans’ continued struggles did anything Saturday, they further strengthened the already overwhelming sense that Geoff Cameron is the inevitable, and entirely reasonable, option at right back for the U.S. team. He continues to show well for Stoke City at right back, and with Timothy Chandler also looking good for Nurnberg in recent weeks, and Michael Parkhurst ready for steady playing time in MLS, you can’t help but wonder how much longer Evans really has.
Mix Diskerud didn’t exactly have a stinker Saturday, but he also didn’t take full advantage of what could have been a showcase match for him. While Beckerman was putting a much stronger imprint on the match, Diskerud was floating in and out, being outworked by his South Korean counterparts.
It wasn’t what Diskerud needed, but his subpar outing was also not a trend. In the second half of 2013, Diskerud showed some very good glimpses with the national team, though mainly in a substitute’s role. His showing against South Korea isn’t going to cost him his spot in the U.S. pecking order, but he will need to do much better if and when he earns another start for Klinsmann.
As for Saturday’s USA goalscorer, Chris Wondolowski, there is a good chance you will read about how he has forced his way onto the plane to Brazil with his latest multi-goal U.S. match. The reality is that, despite his two goals against South Korea, he’s still on the outside looking in. What he did do is keep himself in the conversation, and keep the pressure on other fringe forwards like Eddie Johnson and Herculez Gomez to step their game up.
Don’t get it twisted. Goals do matter, and being able to consistently put away chances will make any forward’s stock rise in the eyes of their coach. Klinsmann has to appreciate this, but he also knows that goals against the likes of Belize, Cuba and South Korea’s B team don’t necessarily make him a better option than the likes of Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson and Terrence Boyd, who are all ahead of him on the depth chart.
We might not have learned anything truly new about the U.S. player pool, but we were reminded of several things we learned in 2013. For some, like Zusi, Beckerman and Wondolowski, that is a good thing. For others, like Evans and Diskerud, Saturday’s match will be one to forget.