GENOA, ITALY - FEBRUARY 29: Clint Dempsey of USA celebrates with his team-mates after scoring the opening goal during the international friendly match between Italy and USA at Luigi Ferraris Stadium on February 29, 2012 in Genoa, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
The U.S. hosts Scotland on Saturday in a friendly, but with World Cup qualifying creeping up, it's the first in a five-match month that really matters.
After nine months of friendlies and training, the real matches for Jurgen Klinsmann's United States squad are upon them and it's just about time for the matches to start counting. The Americans have spent a week training and now will play three friendlies and then their first two 2014 World Cup qualifiers. Jurgen Klinsmann has taken to calling the upcoming month for the United States a "five match tournament." Call it whatever you would like, this is the most intensive and important month that Klinsmann has had in charge of the U.S. team.
All of that begins on Saturday when the U.S. takes on Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida*. As has always been the case in these friendlies, it's not a matter of winning or losing (although winning is preferred), but of continuing to improve and show that the team is nearing top form with qualifying around the corner.
*Yes, Jacksonville, and they look set to have a good crowd so you can quit your snickering now. Or not, your choice. I'm not your mother.
Scotland is actually a pretty good opponent for the U.S. at this time. They can start Barry Bannan, who is the equivalent of an elf, or go with bigger, less skilled central players. Whatever Scotland does, they shouldn't be able to boss the midfield. Possession should belong to the U.S., allowing them to work through their last remaining problems.
One is the difficulty that the Americans have had in getting width. Partly because the U.S. has few good wingers, partly because they have had the right-footed Timothy Chandler at left back and partly because Klinsmann tends to deploy them with a narrow midfield, the U.S. has had trouble getting width. With only one player, Clint Dempsey, that could be described as overly creative and the last of deadly strikers, the U.S. can't expect to regularly break down teams without width.
Whether that means Landon Donovan hugs the touchline or Edgar Castillo and Steve Cherundolo get forward more often, the width has to come. Against a team they should control the tempo again, this will be the perfect opportunity for the Americans to show that width.
Additionally, a striker needs to step up. The movement of Jozy Altidore and whoever else has played up top with him has been atrocious, leaving Dempsey and the rest without options. That can't be the case nearly nine months into Klinsmann's reign. Altidore is coming off of a career year for AZ Alkmaar so he needs to show that he is in top form, especially with his movement. If not him, someone needs to step up because this possession-based, patient attack that Klinsmann is implementing isn't working without that active, smart striker.
Finally, the U.S. has to shown cohesion at the back. That hasn't exactly been their strength for several years now as mental breakdowns, a lack of communication and slow-footed defenders have resulted in some cheap goals. Scotland is a hard-working team that will continue to pressure the U.S. and will be hanging around waiting for a mistake. If the U.S. can avoid the breakdowns and show some cohesion, Scotland isn't breaking them down.
A busy month is upon the U.S. and it culminates with the first two legitimately important matches under Klinsmann -- World Cup qualifiers. Saturday isn't a barometer, but with that test coming up, it's time to show that the work has paid off and that they'll be ready come test day.