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U.S. Men's National Team

USMNT vs. Cuba: What to Watch For

Photo by Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Logan Bowles/USA TODAY Sports

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.

27 comments
    • DB

      Despite what many geographically challenged USMNT fans seem to think, this game won’t be affected by the hurricane…

      …however, Havana is currently forecasted to have some storms around game time, and after seeing some pics of the pitch today, it doesn’t look likely to be able to handle potentially heavy rains. So hope for good weather and no injuries.

      Like

  • UclaBruinGreat

    “For the first time in quite awhile, the U.S. has a variety of options at the forward position.”

    I disagree with that statement, especially using it right now during these two games and at this time. Dempsey and Zardes are are out of the picture for now, and ArJo has barely come back from injury (and then got suspended) and hasn’t shown yet that he deserves to be back in the picture. With that said it’s still basically the same Altidore and Wondo that we’ve had around for forever, and Wood, Morris and Green replacing Donovan, Dempsey, etc.

    If we ever get to the point where finally Altidore, Wood, ArJo, Dempsey, Morris, Zardes, Green, Boyd, Agudelo and Rubin are all healthy and all playing consistently for their clubs then that would be something to write home about. That’s the time of depth and competition at forward we need.

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    • Gary Page

      What I was thinking, too. If Dempsey comes back and AJ gets some good playing time, along with Zardes who can also play wing, we do really have a lot of options then. I do think too much is being made of Arriola–not that I don’t like him, but he hasn’t really been tested yet and is still not an every game player for Tijuana. He’s a “we’ll see.” Also, fan favorite Nagbe isn’t here for personal reasons, so if everyone is available, it is very crowded in the front 6.

      Like

    • Ronniet

      We probably need to press the pause button on anything Dempsey considering his health issue. There is a very good chance he won’t return to soccer period, as bad as that sounds, but the younger players and also the injured ones who are coming off of the mend will make it easier to transition away from duece

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  • Quit Whining About Soccer in the US

    I really feel like games like these can provide false positives. Some guys will shine especially bright against weak competition, when what the US needs is a Clint Dempsey type who shines against the tough competition. Not just at forward, everywhere.

    I am not a Jozy hater, love him, so I hate to feed the haters, but he falls into that category for me. Not that it isn’t useful, look at this stats, many of those goals are meaningful. Just that the US needs to get to the next step across the field and I think they have the talent to do it. Need to find out who it is, and not get caught in a trap of a hat trick ( or shutting down their attack ) against Cuba solidifying any spots.

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    • johnnyrazor

      With CAF, UEFA, CONMEBOL, and the AFC all in qualifying matches this break, we didn’t really have much choice this time around. We have in general played better competition in JK’s tenure, but once WC qualifying begins the ability to schedule quality opponents goes away because either Concacaf is qualifying or S.A. or Europe is.

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      • Chase

        Not to mention that FIFA wouldn’t give Ghana an exception to play us this weekend. That would have been a good test.

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      • johnnyrazor

        Its a travel rule since Ghana has a qualifier Friday, they can’t travel over I think 5 hours for a friendly in the same international window.

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      • Gary Page

        Re Ghana, did anyone else see their game against Russia in Russia last international break? They had a qualifier the first date and then the friendly in Russia with only about a 3 day turn around and the travel and short turn around really showed. I think the final was 2-0.

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    • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho

      Very much agree with this. I feel like we have jumped the gun on Kljestan in particular. He had two really good games against terrible opposition. I like the guy, but can we stop the”looks like we found the answer to our creative midfield” talk until he proves it vs Mexico and CR? I hope he proves everyone right, but we need to consider the competition before writing his name in ink in the starting 11.
      We should a smash Cuba and NZ at home. Good performances should be expected, and rewarded when they come, but lets not assume we are going to find any answers in these games. They are glorified scrimmages vs very weak opposition.

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      • Gary Page

        While in Belgium Kljestan did have the opportunity to play some Championship League matches, so there is that.

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      • the unmistakeable Ronaldinho

        I’m speaking strictly for national team performances. There are more than enough examples of players who fit on one team and not on another. Kljestan definitely has the talent to play for us but its unclear if he truly fits the team yet. Wins over St. Vincent and the Grenadines and T&T don’t prove anything. He should continue to play and prove his worth, but we really won’t know until after the November qualifiers where the team will be challenged. Until then we should all reserve judgement before pretending we found “the answer”

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  • Buffon69

    “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.”

    Look, despite being Mexican, playing professionally in Mexico, having most of his extended family live in Mexico and cheer for the Mexican national team, and having shipped his US dollars back to said family in Mexico while he was playing for Los Angeles, Omar Gonzales is technically an American citizen. As such, he must be properly referenced. He will give the USA a “legitimate option,” not Mexico. Please correct this (possibly racist) mistake.

    Like

    • TheFrenchOne

      I honestly can’t tell if that comment about racism was meant seriously or as a joke. Either way, the level of effort required to make that post was definitely not worth it. Not even close.

      Like

  • downintexas

    I’m excited to see how awesome Wondo will do! I expect 3 goals and 4 assists from Wondo

    Like

    • Lost in Space

      I expect Wondo to not get in the game at all. Wondo is the type of player that we must move away from calling into camps if we ever hope to progress as a soccer nation. Wondo is a 33 yr old MLS Lifer who has never impressed at the international level. I don’t care how much of a locker-room guy his is, or how great he is during the practices….he doesn’t contribute anything in actual games.

      @UclaBruinGreat, I agree that our striker options haven’t improved all that much when looking at these friendlies. However with the return of ArJo (who was actually playing well before the suspension) and with others like Boyd, Zardes, Manneh, who should be nearing full health come January. Than throw in young players like Agudelo, Rubin, & Green approaching consistent 1st team minutes and we’re still in a much better position than we were in 2014 or 2010.

      2017 is going to be a revelation and turning point for the USMNT. We have significant attacking talent both at forward and in midfield beginning to emerge. We have a group of experienced veterans who, while not great, are decent and play with heart. As the young guys transition into the team it should be entertaining to watch the competitions.

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      • johnnyrazor

        There were a lot of “ifs” and “whens” and “possiblys” involved in your answer. Yes, if things work out well for several of those players you mentioned we won’t need guys like Wondo, but if they don’t we are as you say slightly better off than 2010 and 2014. And Manneh is a winger not a striker.

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    • Gary Page

      I’m guessing your comment was sarcastic, but this is the type of competition (weak) where Wondo really shines. If you remember a couple of Gold Cups ago when the big teams (Mexico, CR)P didn’t bring their first teams and Wondo played a lot, he scored something like 6 goals, mostly against the minnows. I hope he doesn’t play and Green and Morris get a lot of minutes in these 2 games. They could be an interesting pairing.

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    • johnnyrazor

      ESPN2 4:00 ET

      But I think they figure is you are “insider” enough to find your way here to SBI you already know the basics.

      Like

  • johnnyrazor

    Ives had an interesting thought over on Goal. He thinks Cameron may be moved to RB and push Yedlin forward. It kind of makes sense seeing that Yedlin has been playing on the wing when coming off the bench for Newcastle and in the past hasn’t played RB if he wasn’t seeing regular time. This would really stretch defenses and allow space for Wood and Altidore to attack the CBs with Yedlin and Pulisic attacking the flanks. Cameron would also be able to get more forward and factor into the offense. I haven’t seen Yedlin at Newcastle other than highlights, but it has sounded as if his offense is getting better.

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    • Bac

      That makes no sense..JK talked for years about how Cams best spot was in the middle. He played RB that one game when Yedlin had to miss due to yellow card accumulation and now several writers have him playing RB again. He’s also the perfect complement to Brooks..

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      • johnnyrazor

        Made some sense in the world of Klinsman not necessarily in the real world I suppose. Anyway its not happening the XI has been announced regular back four with Green in Bedoya’s spot on the wing.

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  • Buster

    Sacha Kljestan back in the spotlight – this should not be a news flash. He’s been playing wello for a long time AND has been ignored by Klinsmann. There is a problem here and the problem is Klinsmann. He is slow to identify and accept players on the rise while sticking with the Bedoya’s and Wondo’s of the league. Right now, Juan Agudelo is on fire. Finally injury free but does Klinsmann see that? Nope, he wastes a roster spot on Wondo who was too old at the last WC. Sacha should have been called in a year ago but bonehead was playing his favs. Pre WC Lee N was setting the league on fire but Klansman missed that one too.

    Like

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