The month of June is traditionally one American school children spend taking important tests that determine whether they move up to the next grade or graduate. For those students who have put in the work all year to score good grades, those big tests late in the year may not be as pressing, but for those who haven't been so convincing during the school year, nailing a high score on a final exam can make all the difference between a great summer and several months of regret.
The same applies to several U.S. national team players now set to be handed some serious final exams in the form of friendlies against Netherlands and Germany. Do poorly, and you might just wind up being left off the team during an important summer of action. Score high, and you could find yourself with a comfortable place on the U.S. Gold Cup squad.
Jurgen Klinsmann probably had different ideas for these friendlies when they were first scheduled, but with more than a half-dozen potential starters missing from his team, Klinsmann has no real choice but to turn these matches into trials by fire for those players on the fringes of the Gold Cup roster, and for those who plan on challenging for starting roles come July.
Friday's friendly with the Netherlands isn't just about individuals either. For Klinsmann, the match could present an opportunity to get a good look at his formation of choice this summer. It remains unclear what he sees being the best tactical setup for his team, and maybe he hasn't settled on one yet. You have the 4-4-2, which might be tough to pull off given the absences of Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, as well as the 4-3-3, which would be better served if Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya were available.
That leaves the 4-2-3-1 as a real possibility, not only because it can provide looks for the glut of central midfield options on the team, but also to help the U.S. try to keep the Netherlands from winning the possession battle Friday. The real question there will be whether Aron Johannsson can handle the target striker duties, which Klinsmann will need him to with Altidore out injured.
Whichever system Klinsmann trots out against the Dutch, he will need some players who aren't normally starters to step up and show they are ready for larger roles, and capable of performing well against top-level competition.
Here are five players who need to show well against the Dutch if they are called upon by Klinsmann:
This one is easy enough to figure out as Johannsson will be the lead striker against the Dutch, and will have the task of trying to pick up the scoring slack left by the absences of Altidore and Dempsey. Johannsson is coming off a somewhat disappointing season for AZ Alkmaar, but one that ended with him in red-hot form in the season's final month. His four goals and two assists during the team's season-ending winning streak helped AZ secure a place in Europa League and sent Johannsson into the summer healthy and in form.
The same couldn't be said a year ago, when Johannsson completed a dream club season with an ankle injury that kept him from having the impact at the World Cup he could have had. Altidore's hamstring injury should have set up Johannsson to shine in Brazil, but he too was injured and only played in the opening win against Ghana. Now, Johannsson has a second chance to show he can be the U.S. team's lead striker.
The left back position remains one in flux, and when Klinsmann's initially suspect experiment of moving Shea to that spot began to bear fruit, he suddenly became an enticing option there. When Orando City set Shea up as its left back and he stood out, the Shea-for-USMNT-left back movement began to pick up steam.
But is he ready to be the starter at left back this summer? Greg Garza has as good a chance as anyone to take that starting role at the Gold Cup, but with Garza injured, Shea will have the upcoming friendlies to increase his chances of overtaking the Tijuana defender. Shea won't have it easy though, not against Dutch and German sides that both boast dangerous wingers.
The Hertha Berlin central defender is coming off a good year in the Bundesliga, and with his age and skill set he seems like a good bet to eventually be a regular U.S. starter. That being said, he has had far too many lackluster showings for the U.S. (his World Cup heroics notwithstanding).
With Matt Besler not in the best of form, Brooks can push himself ahead of the Sporting KC defender with good showings against the Netherlands and Germany. Both opponents will feature top-notch strikers, but several of them will be forwards Brooks has played against previously.
Much like Brooks, Chandler is coming off a successful season in the Bundesliga, and he also has failed to convince when given opportunities by Klinsmann with the U.S. These friendlies are the perfect opportunity for Chandler to show the quality he regularly shows with Eintracht Frankfurt, and if he does that he will move ahead of the likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Brad Evans in the race for the starting right back role at the Gold Cup.
It should be noted that also working in Chandler's favor is his versatility. He has matches at left back under his belt, and if the other left back options fail to inspire, Klinsmann could give Chandler a look there yet again.
It seems like a long time since Williams was starting regularly back in 2013 during World Cup qualifying, but it was just two years ago. An ill-timed injury a year ago prevented him from making a late push for a World Cup roster spot, but he's back now and looking every bit like a challenge for stating defensive midfield role.
Williams has plenty of competition for playing time, but with Kyle Beckerman being 33 and Mix Diskerud not exactly lighting it up in MLS, Williams stands a good chance of boosting his stock if he can make the most of the minutes Klinsmann gives him this month.