The U.S. men's national team returns to action today against New Zealand in their final friendly before the Hex begins. The result, of course, doesn't matter — what matters is it's the USMNT's last chance to prepare before facing Mexico on Nov. 11 to open the final round of World Cup qualifying. Manager Jurgen Klinsmann has shuffled his roster quite a bit and is likely looking to answer some questions before World Cup qualifying. Here are some of the questions we have that today's game may be able to shed some light on.
Can Juan Agudelo make a case for more call-ups?
In a Facebook Q&A over the weekend, Klinsmann chose to answer a question about forward Clint Dempsey’s status and said he was "counting still on Clint, definitely" for a return next year. Dempsey, who has been sidelined until 2017 with heartbeat issues, is 33. Yes, he has been extraordinarily important for the USMNT, even as recently as Copa America, but at least part of that has been due to a lack of striker options behind him. With his age and the possibility that his heartbeat issues aren't resolved, Dempsey's future with the USMNT is far from certain.
Now, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are both in excellent form and there is no reason they won’t be Klinsmann’s preferred starters. They are similar target strikers though — unlike the deep-lying striker that is Dempsey — and there is room for depth at the center forward position. Enter Agudelo, at least potentially. The New England Revolution striker has had his share of struggles in the past, but he is in fine form lately, nabbing three goals and three assists in his last five MLS games. There's no unseating the Altidore-Wood pairing right now, and Jordan Morris seems to be third in line for the future, but Agudelo, who offers a creative striker option, could make a case to be in the mix.
USA Today SportsWinslow Townson
Can Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams push out Jermaine Jones?
Jones, 34, hasn't played for the Colorado Rapids since July after an injury. He is back to training with the Rapids finally as of last week and Klinsmann seems to be hoping he'll be in form for the Hex.
"We have clear thoughts of how to put the team together for the Mexico game, but a lot will happen over the next four weeks,” Klinsmann said. “Certain players have to have a good rhythm with their club teams and we still have hope that some players will come back in the picture, like a Jermaine Jones for example."
But his injury problems as of late may be giving other players the opportunity to potentially take his spot. Jones has been the USMNT's best defensive midfielder option, to the point that even at 34 years old, nobody has emerged to overtake the German-American, who Klinsmann still sees as the best option. Klinsmann's second choice has often been Kyle Beckerman, who is also 34 and close to being aged out of the job.
Meanwhile Perry Kitchen, 24, is doing well at Hearts, recently being named the team's captain and probably warrants a look in the role. Danny Williams, 27 has had chances with the USMNT and for whatever reason has never impressed Klinsmann enough to stick around. But a combination of good form and the aging starters in the defensive midfielder position could change things for Williams. This is a big opportunity for both.
Getty ImagesMark Runnacles
Is Sacha Kljestan a first-choice starter now?
No player’s stock for the national team has risen as quickly in recent weeks as Kljestan, it seems. He scored two goals and two assists in World Cup qualifying last month against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. It was a continuation of his excellent club form for the New York Red Bulls that has him leading the league at 17 assists and looking like the best playmaker in MLS.
“Sacha really took his opportunity 100 percent,” Klinsmann said this weekend. “He is the perfect example of, even if you’re out of the picture for a while and maybe things are going wrong in your club environment or maybe you're just having a down period with your performances, there's always the next opportunity waiting for you.”
"Sacha really understood that message and he's making a very strong case for a starting position."
Kljestan, who had been away from the national team for more than two years before his call last month, did have a pretty quiet outing against Cuba last week. But the bumpy surface and poor conditions make that match easy to write off. As long as he puts in a decent enough performance against New Zealand, there’s a good chance Kljestan will have locked his spot in for the Hex.
USA Today SportsAdam Hunger
Did Julian Green earn a chance to fight for a spot?
As strange as the Cuba match was, there’s no way Green’s contributions can be denied. He scored a goal and orchestrated another, and he was relentless down the left flank for the Americans. No player on the pitch played with as much energy or confidence. He was the best player for the USMNT that day.
But the caveat of the poor pitch and the odd circumstances is surely in the back of Klinsmann’s mind. That’s not to mention that it’s only been one good game out the youngster after almost two years without USMNT call-ups.
“He deserves a compliment. He played a good game,” Klinsmann said afterward. “But most importantly, we see Julian maturing. He’s getting stronger. As it is with all young players, sometimes you make a step backward and you try to make two forward.”
Klinsmann’s comments were complimentary, but hardly gushing. In the past, Klinsmann has said he wants to see Green get more playing time with his club and that hasn’t happened. Still, Green’s performance in Cuba may have been enough to convince Klinsmann to give him more looks and consider him, even while Green sorts out his club situation with Bayern Munich.
Getty ImagesKevin C. Cox
Can anyone break up the Geoff Cameron-John Brooks centerback pairing?
It seems like the centerback pairing for the USMNT is all but set. Cameron and Brooks were two of the best players for the Americans at Copa America, and they appeared to have developed a real partnership. But both players looked a bit rattled in Cuba, perhaps due to the unpredictable, bouncy pitch.
With Cameron and Brooks both sent back to their clubs, a new pair of centerbacks will be starting against New Zealand. Matt Besler has been a favorite of Klinsmann's to slot in where needed. Steve Birnbaum has also been making his case and getting regular call-ups from Klinsmann. Omar Gonzalez was passed over for Copa America, despite good club form, and is a good option, too.
(Birnbaum took a very nasty kick to the head in Cuba and there was a lot of blood, but Klinsmann said this weekend that Birnbaum amazingly did not suffer a concussion and will be available against New Zealand.)