The U.S. Men’s National Team’s clash with Cuba serves as a midpoint. After waltzing past St. Vincent & the Grendines and Trinidad & Tobago, the U.S. now has a chance to reconnect ahead of bigger challenges. Matches with Mexico and Costa Rica loom, giving the pair of upcoming friendlies added importance as competition becomes the main talking point.
Jurgen Klinsmann faces some tough choices heading towards the Hexagonal round, as he looks to select a USMNT roster that can go toe-to-toe with CONCACAF’s elite. Missing several regulars, the current USMNT group is not quite full strength, but the squad faces several positional battles that could dictate who is first choice in the coming months.
Spots all over the field remain up in the air, as some of the group’s younger options, like newcomer Lynden Gooch, look to impress. Meanwhile, a veteran defensive backline should be given another chance to shine, while an emerging crop of forwards battle it out for more gametime.
Here’s a look at several storylines to watch when the USMNT takes on Cuba:
ROTATING THE FORWARDS
For the first time in quite awhile, the U.S. has a variety of options at the forward position. Now, the task is figuring out how best to use them.
Jozy Altidore enters camp in his best form. The Toronto FC forward has shined for both club and country throughout the past several months after recovering from yet another injury. Hamstring issues appear to be the only thing that can hold him back at this point, as the 26-year-old forward has finally returned to the form that made him the most reliable striker in the pool.
Joining him on the roster are a pair of younger options, each of whom is more than worthy of a starting gig. Bobby Wood has likely been the USMNT’s breakout player throughout the past year or two, as he truly took Jurgen Klinsmann’s challenges and spun them into a thriving career for club and country. Wood is the posterboy of what Klinsmann wants his young stars to do. He faced a challenged, took his lumps, and emerged better for it. Joining him is Jordan Morris, a player that has truly stepped up after a difficult start to his rookie campaign. With 12 goals for the Seattle Sounders this season, Morris looks to be the MLS Rookie of the Year favorite.
Given the options at hand, Klinsmann is likely to stick with a 4-4-2 formation. It allows him to get his best players on the field together, while allowing some combination of forwards to work with one another to open up the defense. The question is what that combination will be, and these upcoming friendlies could provide a bit of a glimpse as to what Klinsmann may opt for heading towards the Mexico game.
Look for Klinsmann to rotate the trio throughout the two games, giving each a chance to pair with one another in an effort to seal starters heading into the Hex.
YOUNG STARS LOOK TO IMPRESS
A friendly always presents a chance to impress for the latest crop of young stars, and Friday’s clash should be no different.
Lynden Gooch, Paul Arriola and Julian Green headline the latest group of youngsters looking to make a big impressions while joining Christian Pulisic as the next generation among the USMNT squad. The trio expect to earn a look at some point throughout the two matches, giving each a chance to compete for a roster spot going forward.
The three, in all likelihood, are competing for a similar position. All three can play on the wing, although all three bring something different to the table. Arriola has impressed in a major way in each of his USMNT looks thus far, and appears to be the more ready to make the leap to the senior squad. Gooch, who can also tuck into a more central role, is experiencing his first USMNT camp, making him a bit of a wild card with the new group. Then there’s Green, a player whose resurgence with Bayern sees him back with the first team after an extended spell away. While all three do provide some versatility, they are likely competing for a spot as backup option out wide.
While the three will all likely step up for bigger USMNT roles in the years to come, they will also hope to lock down a more consistent spot in the present, especially with qualifying looming.
KLJESTAN’S CONTINUED RENAISSANCE
Just one month ago, Sacha Kljestan appeared far from the USMNT picture. Now, the New York Red Bulls playmaker appears vital as the U.S. heads towards a key stretch of games.
After being called in as an injury replacement for John Brooks, Kljestan seized his chance at USMNT redemption with a pair of standout performances against Trinidad & Tobago and St. Vincent & The Grenadines. Since reconvening for the most recent pair of matches, Jurgen Klinsmann has trumpeted Kljestan as someone that should serve as an inspiration to every other player currently on the outside looking in.
Kljestan is expected to compete for a prominent role going forward. The Red Bulls No. 10 may be the creative option the U.S. has been looking for, one that allows Michael Bradley to sit deeper and create from the back. It’s a role Kljestan has thrived in, surging up the assist charts once again in MLS with another MVP-caliber year.
Klinsmann would do well to test a midfield partnership of Bradley and Kljestan, allowing the two to work out the kinks as they reconnect for the first time in years.
DEFENSE LOOKS TO BUILD TOWARDS HEX
For the first time since the Copa America, Jurgen Klinsmann has his first-choice defense at his disposal.
Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks and Geoff Cameron formed a formidable backline during this summer’s tournament, asserting themselves as a clear first team backline. Due to Brooks’ injury issues, the group was unable to link up during the most recent qualifiers, making the Cuba match vital for the group’s chemistry.
While the foursome remain the most likely group for the Mexico game, there are several others pushing. Timmy Chandler is unlikely to force anyone out of the lineup, but he could push Johnson up the field if he can lock down the left back position. Steve Birnbaum and Omar Gonzalez remain in the competition at centerback, with the latter in particular proving a legitimate option for Mexico given his big-game experience.
Heading into the final months of 2016, the defense appears to be the most set group, but it’s now up to that group to confirm that belief with another strong showing.