The US Men’s National Team is off to Cuba, where they’ll play what some are calling a historic friendly. Others are pointing out that the two played in Estadio Pedro Marrero all the way back in 2008. Michael Bradley got a yellow card in that game. This isn’t exactly the Bacardi Bowl of the 1930s.
Hurricane Matthew may make Friday’s match ugly. The Cuban team itself probably won’t. This is the same team, more or less, you may remember as the only team the US could handle at the 2015 Gold Cup, where the Yanks won 6-0. The Cubans haven’t improved a ton since then.
The Americans have. These two friendlies are an opportunity for them to improve even more. If the competition does not necessarily push them, the practices will. This week serves in many ways a similar role as the January “Camp Cupcake,” a chance for fringe National Teamers to learn from the likes of Michael Bradley and Chris Wondolowski and push themselves ahead of their comrades in the pecking order.
It is a chance for American fans to do a little bit of kremlinology, or at least psychoanalyze Jurgen Klinsmann. What does it mean if Ethan Horvath starts against Cuba, or if Julian Green only gets 20 minutes? Will the US try out some exotic formation? Will it mean anything if they do?
In November, the US faces two of their toughest World Cup qualification matches — hosting Mexico and traveling to Costa Rica. These are a couple of matches where every shirt on the 23-man roster and every minute of training counts. The US has an awfully easy path to the World Cup, on a global scale, but that’s no excuse for the Yanks to squander it. The Cuba and New Zealand matches are opportunities for the US to improve on the edges and forge a new identity going into November, into 2017, and into Russia in 21 months or so.
Let’s look at the roster to see where the big improvements can be made.
Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath, David Bingham, William Yarbrough
Yarbrough was the next big thing back when Leon won Liga MX, but he has been outside looking in over the past couple of years. With Sean Johnson enduring a rough season and Bill Hamid nursing injuries, the guero gets another shot. It will be tough for him to leap over David Bingham, who has been one of the most athletic shot-stoppers in MLS since being given the keys to the great big Oldsmobile Cutlass that is the San Jose Earthquakes. He may be playing in Europe soon, and he is probably the most likely third-stringer behind Guzan and Howard.
Of course, Ethan Horvath is already playing in Europe at age 21. He and Bingham will be the two Klinsmann is looking at as the heir apparent, and it will be Bingham’s athleticism vs. Horvath’s canniness. This will make more sense in practice then in the two friendlies where they’ll face, like, 3 shots combined.
Defenders: Steve Birnbaum, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Timothy Chandler, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin
Brooks will be heading back to Germany after the Cuba match, so maybe he just wanted to get some tourism in before the Berlin winter. Can’t really blame him. His absence may give Birnbaum or Gonzalez the chance to slide in next to Geoff Cameron in center defense, but it’s unlikely either will unseat the giant on the second-place side in the Bundesliga.
It may be surprising that the US isn’t looking at who may be a second-stringer behind Fabian Johnson. FabJo will be playing a whole lot for Monchengladbach this winter and could probably use a breather against weaker CONCACAF sides. There’s really no reason Timothy Chandler is the only one here who can play on the left when Jorge Villafana and Brandon Vincent are kicking around North America. And DeAndre Yedlin: still fast.
Midfielders: Paul Arriola, Michael Bradley, Lynden Gooch, Perry Kitchen, Sacha Kljestan, Christian Pulisic, Danny Williams
Kitchen has been stalwart at Hearts, is growing a beard, and seems like he’s going full David Tennant circa Broadchurch. This, imho, is good. The US has no real need of a defensive midfielder to pair with Bradley against these two particular teams, but they’ll want someone faster than Kyle Beckerman when Mexico comes, and it’ll be down to Kitchen or Williams. Kitchen is at least the more interesting choice now, and maybe he’ll be able to prove that he’s better to boot.
One can sympathize a bit with Arriola and Gooch, two great wingers who should be getting a lot more press. But Pulisic is a star and they need to prove they’re at his level. Gooch is gritty and more of a Bedoya clone than a tricky powerhouse, but a shuttler with speed is something the US needs. All the more ways for Kljestan to pick up assists as seemingly America’s Only #10.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Julian Green, Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski, Bobby Wood
Julian Green! The other American phenom getting minutes in the Bundesliga. He has fallen off the radar and hasn’t really grown physically, so it will be interesting to see how he deals with muddy pitches and iron-footed defenders this week.
The American brain trust hasn’t really figured out a way to get Altidore, Wood and Morris all thinking on the same page yet, and the more time they have together the more likely it is they’ll be able to pull that off. Both Wood and Morris have had confidence-building summers — Bobby Wood has scored the only two goals Hamburg’s got this year, and Jordan Morris has started using his left foot like he’s a smirking Iñigo Montoya.
What to look for:
The USMNT spent September simply putting bad teams away. Check the combined 10-0 scoreline on the two qualifying matches. Should they continue, the question will mostly be about who is doing it, rather than how. Whatever tactics on display this weekend will be more plain than what we will see against Mexico and Costa Rica, as well as less defensive.
It will be instructive to see who gets minutes in the midfield and what the attacking pairing will look like. Also check who starts in center defense and what happens if Fabian Johnson gets subbed out early, as he should.
A watcher should both not read too much into these and watch carefully. The scorelines may not say much, but who makes the box-score does. It’s essentially a view into how Jurgen Klinsmann thinks, whether you like it or not.
This post was composed by freelance writer and swell guy, Asher Kohn. Reach out to him and discuss all the soccer happenings from around the world on Twitter at:@AJKhn. Catch up with all of the latest soccer happenings on SiriusXM FC.