For better or worse, most teams around the world know whether they will be going to the World Cup in 2014. So, for most teams, this international break is not very meaningful. The U.S., of course, assured themselves of the trip to Brazil by topping the CONCACAF Hexagonal. However, while the game versus Scotland on Friday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2, WatchESPN, and UniMas) means little for the team, it is of the utmost importance for individual players on the fringe of the U.S. national team picture. With only a few matches scheduled before the planes take off in the summer, every available minute is vitally important for those yet to make their case to Jürgen Klinsmann.
New and returning faces
Many of the names on the roster will be familiar to watchers of the Hex. But, with Klinsmann not calling in any players still involved in the MLS postseason, and leaving behind a few injured players (including Landon Donovan), there are several names with something to prove.
Brek Shea: Shea played an important part in the U.S.’s Gold Cup win over the summer, then was promptly injured by the Union’s own Matt Kassel in a late-summer friendly with Shea’s club team, Stoke City. Shea has since recovered from his injury, but has struggled to break back into Stoke’s starting lineup. The games against Scotland and Austria represent a prime opportunity for Shea to show he’s back to his best.
John Brooks: The young center back has continued to look good for his club team in Germany, Hertha Berlin, but will have his work cut out for him to make the final roster, considering the names in front of him. That said, sterling performances might give him an edge over Clarence Goodson or Michael Orozco, the current names fighting to be the third center back behind Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. Geoff Cameron is listed also listed as a defender, and seems likely to make the roster, as much for his versatility as his defensive skills.
Sacha Kljestan: Kljestan’s club form continues to impress, but he has yet to really stamp his name on an international match. Mix Diskerud, meanwhile, has played his way onto the roster with a series of zippy and committed performances. Kljestan has qualities, but needs to show them to earn a spot.
Forwards: Jozy Altidore and Aron Jóhannsson are locks. Eddie Johnson would seem to have done enough, too, to get a place. Clint Dempsey is coming, too, though he may end up classified a midfielder. Dempsey (and Fabian Johnson) is now out of the squad due to injury, and has not been replaced, which may open the door even further for other players. Terrence Boyd, for instance, has looked ever more confident and composed in a U.S. shirt, playing a role in Jóhannsson’s goal against Panama in the final game of the Hex. His club form has been excellent, as well. Chris Wondolowski is also in the squad, perhaps surprisingly. While Wondo’s scoring in the early part of the Gold Cup was impressive, his no-shows later in the tournament, not to mention his injured toe, make his inclusion a little hard to fathom. Mike Magee may have been a more deserving participant, especially when it is unlikely Wondolowski can do enough to get a spot for Brazil.
Eric Lichaj: This is the big one. Under Bob Bradley, Lichaj had seemed like the solution to the U.S.’s left back problem. But, with Bradley gone and Lichaj injured at the beginning of the Klinsmann era, this is Lichaj’s first appearance since the coaching switch. Left back is no longer so troublesome an area, and Lichaj has been playing right back for his club. Assuming Lichaj makes an appearance, it will be interesting to see which side he plays on. Considering that both of the U.S.’s starting fullbacks right now are converted midfielders (assuming Steve Cherundolo is unable to earn his place back), Lichaj may be a good insurance policy, able to cover both spots.
The other big returning name is Michael Bradley. Injured in the warm-up to the U.S.’s game against Costa Rica in September, Bradley did not play a part in any of the fall qualifiers, and has only recently returned for his club team, Roma. It is a relief to have him back, and it will be intriguing to see how he gels with players like Diskerud and Kljestan, who have not had many opportunities to play beside him.
The last time the U.S. played Scotland was a year and a half ago, in May of 2012. That game was something of a coming-out party for the Klinsmann-era team, with the U.S. putting on its best attacking display in years. The Scots were dismantled that day, and lost 5–1. Since that time, the Scotland team has been up and down, and Scotland failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2014. The U.S. should certainly have enough to defeat them, though playing in Glasgow is never easy.
What’s important to remember, of course, is that the result is completely unimportant, beyond maintaining momentum from World Cup Qualifying. Individual performances are much more significant.
No predictions this time. The U.S. should feel confident of a victory, but the focus must be on individual performances. Starting selections will be telling, too, as they will go a long way toward showing who, of the fringe players, Klinsmann sees having the best chance of making it. Also expect many substitutions for or in the second half, as Klinsmann will want to run the rule over as many players as possible.