For the last nine months, the mantra for Jurgen Klinsmann and the United States has been that win or lose, friendly results don't matter. All of the matches were part of a "process" to get the team ready for World Cup qualifying when the matches do matter. Well, that "process" has one match left.
The U.S. has played Mexico, Costa Rica, Belgium, Honduras, Ecuador, France, Slovenia, Venezuela, Panama, Italy, Scotland and Brazil since Klinsmann took over the team last August and now there is Canada. The Americans will head to Toronto to take on The Canucks on Sunday and when that is over, the friendlies are done. Attention turns to World Cup qualifying and Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala, who start the Americans' road to Brazil 2014 next week.
The two most recent friendlies, against Scotland and Brazil, have been a mixed bag. After looking fantastic against the Scots, the Brazilians exposed the Americans' weaknesses. The team is still without a dependable center back to pair with Carlos Bocanegra and they do not get consistent midfield play. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan have still yet to play much together under Klinsmann and Jozy Altidore has not played for the national team since February.
Nobody would argue that the U.S. is a finished product, but they have made some strides in the last two weeks. The midfield play, while not consistent, showed that it can be dynamic and downright frightening for opponents at times. Michael Bradley is in the form of his life right now and when not asked to play upfield where his touch, or lack thereof, is a problem, Maurice Edu can be a fine screen in front of the defense. Fabian Johnson has made people forget about a decade of left back-less soccer and the formerly bare cupboard of strikers doesn't look so empty anymore.
Progress, building and the "process" won't do them much good after Sunday, though. Getting better is always a good thing, but when World Cup qualifying starts then everything is about getting results.
For the U.S. to take the final steps to be ready to get results they need to establish what their best XI is and their roles. The most important part of that is deciding who will start next to Bocanegra in the center of the defense. Oguchi Onyewu is surely not an option after his disaster of a match against Brazil, leaving it to either Geoff Cameron or Clarence Goodson. Whoever starts against Canada will be a good indicator of who Klinsmann will turn to in qualifying and it will also be a good test for whoever starts with Dwayne De Rosario in the team for Canada.
Also worth watching is who goes to the bench with Dempsey looking like a good bet to return to the starting lineup after dealing with a groin injury. Landon Donovan is likely to start, as are Bradley and Jermaine Jones, leaving Edu or Jose Francisco Torres as the man to move to the bench. If Edu isn't going to be played deep in the midfield then Klinsmann might as well bench him, but Torres has really struggled against top flight competition and bringing Dempsey in for him with Edu playing deep allows the surging Bradley to play further up the pitch, where he is more effective.
The good thing for the Americans is that there are these options. In the last two matches the U.S. been excellent in one and had some positive moments in the other. With the exception of center back, they probably would be pretty comfortable taking that team into qualifying. Now they have to change it up, not because they have problems, but because they needs to find a place for their best player. There are worse problems to have.
Once Klinsmann decides who starts next to Bocanegra and who Dempsey comes in for then the starting team is ready to go. Jozy Altidore will come in at forward and the best XI and roles are set. Then it's just a matter of fine tuning. After all, qualifying is just a week away.
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