U.S. Men's National Team
What to Look For in U.S. Friendly Versus Iceland
January 30, 2016
THE UNITED STATES men's national team will play its first game of 2016 on Sunday when it hosts Iceland (3:45pm ET, ESPN2) in Carson, Calif. For Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff, it will be a welcome return to the field.
The team has been in camp together for around three weeks, the roster a mix of veterans, players from the U-23 pool, and a few others who might be able to contribute right now.
As I’ve said in the past, this January camp is incredibly important. After a disappointing 2015 that featured a poor performance in the Gold Cup, it became clear that a good portion of the core had hit its ceiling. January camp has also been an important starting point for most American players to earn their first caps. In fact, before November’s World Cup qualifiers, Alan Gordon was the only MLS player under Klinsmann to earn his first cap in a game outside of January camp.
So now is the time for players to impress and for new talent to emerge. These are not the best circumstances, perhaps, for such a crucial opportunity—it occurs during the height of MLS offseason—but the players will have to make the best of it.
Here are my thoughts heading into Sunday’s game.
Veterans, too, have a lot to prove
This game is not all about the newcomers. These veterans will have to prove their worth all over again:
Jozy Altidore: The two-time World Cup player is now in his prime, in theory, but 2015 was not a good year for Altidore. He had his moments for Toronto FC at the club level, but injuries kept him from ever being dominant. For the national team, he struggled mightily outside of a brilliant performance in a friendly against Denmark. The biggest problem for Altidore, though, is that a corps of young forwards might soon push him out of the starting XI.
Jordan Morris is now a professional with Seattle, Rubio Rubin and Aron Johannsson will likely each return to health in the coming months, and Bobby Wood should continue to get looks after scoring important goals against the Netherlands and Germany. That’s not to mention that Gyasi Zardes could potentially move up top or Juan Agudelo could force his way back into the picture. For Altidore, the pressure will only continue to mount.
Matt Besler: Besler enjoyed a very good World Cup in 2014 but his position with the national team has not always been secure; look to his absence on the 2015 Gold Cup team as evidence. The Sporting KC center back needs to take advantage of his time at January camp, especially considering that John Brooks is having his best professional season at Besler’s same position. Omar Gonzalez, meanwhile, is off to a very strong start in Mexico and Geoff Cameron (when healthy) is a regular in the Premier League. Ventura Alvarado is a Klinsman favorite and Matt Miazga is coming off a terrific 2015, and youngsters such as Cameron Carter Vickers and Tim Parker could be in the mix as well. A poor showing from Besler could be disastrous for him.
Jermaine Jones: Jones has been a Klinsmann stalwart from Day One, but at 34 the midfielder has only so much gas left in the tank before he succumbs to Father Time. Does Klinsmann think Jones will again be a World Cup player at 36? Maybe he hasn’t made that determination yet, but Jones is in a tricky situation, currently without a club and facing a suspension no matter where he goes. As a result, the amount of playing time he is going to get before the Copa America is questionable. It’s fair game to think that if Jones does not have a good performance in these matches, it could finally be time to make a change.
Mix Diskerud: Diskerud, 25, has had some very good moments for the national team since his first cap in 2010 but finding a role for him has always been difficult. Like the others mentioned above, he is now facing unprecedented competition, as central attacking midfield is the strongest position among U.S. youth national teams. Emerson Hyndman, Gedion Zelalem, Luis Gil, and Christian Pulisic are just a few of the impressive names. Sebastian Lletget of the Los Angeles Galaxy is another to watch.
Which new players might emerge?
Every year, January camp produces at least one player who becomes a key part of the national team. Last year that was Gyasi Zardes and it would not be surprising if this year’s camp yielded multiple such players. Assuming that Miazga and Darlington Nagbe are already considered to have broken into the team after having played in World Cup qualifiers, I am looking at two players who could be part of the team moving forward.
Kellyn Acosta: The FC Dallas academy product did not have a good U-20 World Cup but a large part of that can be chalked up to the fact that he was played out of position at left back. He is at his best as a central midfielder, one who’s pretty good on the ball but has a fair amount of defensive bite as well. Whenever FC Dallas would lose the ball, Acosta was eager to win it back.
Ethan Finlay: Finlay, a Columbus Crew SC attacker, is the most comfortable pure winger available to Klinsmann. Many players on the wings under Klinsmann have been played there out of position: think Zardes, Alejandro Bedoya, Joe Corona, and even Danny Williams. Finlay simply offers something that the U.S. does not have at the moment. If he impresses in these games, expect him to stick around.
Nguyen’s last stand?
Lee Nguyen is one of the most intriguing players on this roster. He’s been part of the national team in short stints under Klinsmann since 2014 but has never been able to become an impact player. He played very well for the Revolution in 2014, and while inconsistent in 2015 he still had some impressive stretches. But Nguyen is now 29 years old and, like Diskerud, faces a crop of talented young players rising in central attacking midfield. If Nguyen does not perform well in Carson, his national team emergence may never come.
Importance of cohesion
January camp is mostly about the players, obviously, but the coaches will be tested as well. Historically, matches at this camp have been dull and poorly played; should this year’s prove otherwise, Klinsmann could do much to build 2016 momentum after a much-criticized 2015.
That means not just winning, but winning with style. Two solid performances won’t mitigate the criticisms of Klinsmann, of course, and these are also against two underdog opponents who will field mostly second- and third-string players. The turnaround has to start somewhere, though. Why not here?
What are you hoping to see in Sunday's match? Share your take below.
Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.