The payoff is finally here for the U.S. national team after a protracted January camp. The training sessions are winding down. The friendlies against Iceland (Sunday) and Canada (Feb. 5, 10:15p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO) are finally within reach.
This pair of matches isn’t quite like the typical set of friendlies. The placement of the camp precludes the participation of European-based regulars. The roster reflects those absences with a blend of established figures, fringe options, international novices and Olympic contenders. And the opponents face similar issues with many of their stars also absent to deal with their club obligations.
Even with those restrictions in place, the Americans can derive some utility from these matches. It is an exercise designed to push a handful of players into more prominent roles and weigh whether they can shoulder it in more trying circumstances. The progression of several January camp players over the years — including the ascent of Gyasi Zardes during the last year — underscores the potential profit from it.
It is down to U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the assembled players to ensure this year produces the same sort of benefit on the whole. In order to meet that goal, Klinsmann must tick three separate boxes as the next week unfolds.
Evaluate fringe players for World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala
The primary purpose of this camp is to run the rule over players on the periphery of the squad. Klinsmann rendered his verdict on several MLS standouts by omitting so many of them from his initial squad to make room for Olympic contenders instead. The players still in the frame — fresh faces like David Bingham, Ethan Finlay, Luis Robles and Tony Tchani, plus intermittent figures like Steven Birnbaum and Perry Kitchen and regular squad players like Mix Diskerud and Lee Nguyen — received the chance to state their claims in this camp.
The training sessions provided a chance to impress over the past few weeks, but the players aiming to disrupt the status quo must produce over the next two matches to further their case. These two friendlies against makeshift opposition do not present the same challenges as a World Cup qualifier or a full-strength friendly against a good side, but they do provide an opportunity to make a mark. The players looking to carve out a greater role in the setup must take it.
Experiment with personnel groups for more established players
Klinsmann included the spine of his side — Matt Besler in defense, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in midfield and Jozy Altidore up front — to establish a baseline and provide a template for the others to follow. The reliance on a handful of regulars allows Klinsmann to chop and change to place potential contributors in the proper context.
The question is how far Klinsmann plans to take those experiments. There is latitude here to alter the shape (Darlington Nagbe might benefit from a possible switch to three in central midfield, for example) or tinker with partnerships or positions (look for lots of changes within a thin defensive corps, for example).
Survey the foundation for the Olympic qualifying playoff against Colombia
After expending more time and energy on MLS standouts looking to break through in his first few January camps, Klinsmann shifted the focus toward cultivating Olympic players over the past two years. He named 11 Olympic-eligible players in his initial squad, though the departures and the withdrawals of Fatai Alashe, Matt Miazga and Marc Pelosi stripped away some potential contributors from that group.
These circumstances allowed the Olympic core — admittedly stripped of some key figures for one reason or another — to bear the burden of a full national team camp and use it to aid the Olympic preparations. The past few weeks provided lessons worth taking forward and underscored the growth necessary to step into the full setup down the line.
The only question left for U.S. under-23 coach Andreas Herzog: How many of those players will actually take the field? The veterans — plus a national team regular like Jordan Morris — are likely to soak up most of the minutes in these friendlies, but the possibility of reinforcing those lessons with a first cap or a spell on the field offers the potential to finish off this experience with a flourish.