U.S. Men's National Team
5 Things to Consider Ahead of U.S.-Puerto Rico Game
May 21, 2016
THE UNITED STATES men's national team will take on Puerto Rico Sunday (12pm ET, FS1) in the first of three friendlies in the run-up to Copa America Centenario. Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad is heavily favored in the first-ever meeting between the teams but this game could offer key insights into how the German coach will address several outstanding issues before the big tournament begins.
Here are five things I will be watching for on Sunday.
Uncertainty at both fullback roles
Both the left and right back positions are up for grabs, and the conversation at fullback begins with DeAndre Yedlin.
So far under Klinsmann he has primarily played as a winger and only appeared to have earned his coach’s trust at his preferred right back against weaker opponents. After a successful season at Sunderland, where he featured prominently in a successful relegation fight, Yedlin appears ready to claim the right back position. Puerto Rico is a weak team and won’t offer any set conclusions but perhaps it will offer insight. If Yedlin plays on the wing Sunday, it will suggest Klinsmann is not convinced the Seattle native is ready for that defense-first role.
If not Yedlin, the right back job could fall to Nottingham Forest’s Eric Lichaj (in his first national team camp since 2012) or central defenders Geoff Cameron or Michael Orozco, who have both played right back under Klinsmann. A final possibility would be Fabian Johnson.
Left back is also a bit uncertain. With the U.S. Johnson has played more minutes at left back than any other position. While he is widely regarded to be a better midfielder, Johnson has provided stability at the left back position that has troubled the national team for decades. For what it's worth—not much—Johnson is listed as a midfielder on this roster.
If Johnson does play in his preferred midfield role, who will play left back? Tim Ream has a good chance despite primarily playing as a centerback. Lichaj, who has spent time on that side of the field at the club level, also could play on the left.
The most likely scenario is Yedlin starting at right back and Ream starting on the left. Of course, Timothy Chandler and Edgar Castillo also remain in contention for the Copa Roster while playing with their clubs.
Pressure on John Brooks
It's hard to think of a U.S. player who has more pressure in these pre-Copa friendlies than John Brooks. There is lots of competition for the two starting central defense spots and Brooks is not a lock. The Hertha Berlin product had a great season in the Bundesliga but has yet to have a consistent run of strong defensive outings for the U.S. He will get chances based on his club form, but will it translate to the international stage? If it doesn’t, he wouldn’t be the first American player to perform much better for his club.
It's quite possible that Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler start in central defense in the Copa America Centenario opener gainst Colombia on June 3. In addition to Besler, Ream is another contender for the left-centerback spot. Both players have plenty of experience under Klinsmannn.
If Brooks gets the chance against Puerto Rico or the friendlies that follow, he has to take advantage of it.
Will any young players emerge?
There are seven players on the roster for the Puerto Rico friendly who are not part of the 40-man preliminary Copa America roster. The players to watch here are Fafa Picault and Emerson Hyndman who are both likely to see minutes against Puerto Rico. Picault is an intriguing option because the U.S. forward pool is thin due to advancing age and injury-prone players like Jozy Altidore and Aron Johannsson.
Hyndman seems to be a Klinsmann-type player. He’s very technical and can really help his team in possession. As a disciplined central midfielder, he could join Christian Pulisic as a key member of the next generation of U.S. internationals.
Meanwhile, Julian Green has made a series of poor decisions since the World Cup when he was seen as a huge part of the national team’s future. It’s too early to call Green a bust but he’s teetering. A strong showing against Puerto Rico could be just what he needs to turn things around.
Perry Kitchen or Danny Williams?
Another potential roster battle I'm curious to see: Perry Kitchen vs. Danny Williams for the defensive midfield position. Kyle Beckerman has owned this role for some time now, playing behind Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in key U.S. matches. Beckerman's consistency in a deep-lying position has allowed Bradley and Jones the freedom to push forward in attack.
The problem, of course, is that Beckerman is now 34 years old and has lost a step or two. Williams and Kitchen both appear to be strong candidates to take his spot—if not this summer than in the years ahead. Sunday's game could provide some clarity on who is next in line for the crucial No. 6 role.
Tim Howard or Brad Guzan?
It what has historically been the U.S. national team's strongest position, there are a surprising number of questions among the top two goalkeepers.
Tim Howard lost his starting job at Everton during the second half of the season and does not resemble the stalwart who performed so well against Beligum in the 2014 World Cup round of 16. Similarly, Brad Guzan is coming off an awful season with Aston Villa. The Birmingham-based club was terrible all season long but Guzan did not help his cause during the 2015-16 campaign. It would be understandable if he was even a bit shell-shocked these days, considering the nonstop onslaught he faced before losing the starting role.
If Guzan gets the nod against Puerto Rico, he must seize the moment. It always seemed likely that Guzan was going to the be the next U.S. national team starting keeper after Howard but that is less clear now than ever before.