Five Points: USMNT completes European tour with daunting test in Germany

COLOGNE, Germany —

United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann spoke at length about the opportunity presented by this pair of matches in Netherlands and Germany over the course of the past week. He noted the importance of playing against the best competition on foreign soil and underscored the potential long-term benefits created by pushing his players toward another level.

It is an observation worth heeding ahead of the encounter with World Cup winners Germany on Wednesday (live, 2:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go). There are no tangible results at stake. This is not a particularly applicable challenge ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup next month. It is simply a chance to test this group against the best team in the world.

As the revival act in the Netherlands on Friday showed, the Americans plan to embrace the task at hand. It is a special night, even if some of the some of the German stars are elsewhere. And this group expects to perform accordingly.

“Especially for the young guys who are just getting their feet wet with all this and who are inexperienced in terms of the national team, these games are really important,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “The lights come on. You’re playing against big teams and, in a lot of times, in big stadiums and great atmospheres. They are special nights. Yeah, it’s easy to write them off as friendlies, but we don’t look at them like that. At the end of the day, there are no points at stake, but, in terms of our growth as a team and our development, they are important nights.”

How will the victory in Amsterdam manifest in Cologne?

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Part of the progress stems from processing results and then shunting them to one side. The magnitude of this game — a friendly against the World Cup winners on German soil — aids the process. The possibility for a letdown in the wake of the emotional high at AmsterdamArena is reduced with such a high-profile fixture on tap, but this group must compartmentalize a bit in order to carry the morale boost from the victory forward without letting a sense of accomplishment creep into the preparations.

“It helps a lot, definitely, but we also understand it’s a completely new game and it doesn’t really matter whatsoever,” U.S. midfielder Mix Diskerud said.

Watch for two particularly helpful factors in this regard: (1) the desire of several German-based and German-born players to impress, though this principle isn’t limited to those players; and (2) the potential changes to the starting XI to freshen up the team and manage the rigors of playing two intense matches in a short space of time.

Grappling with internal and external threats at the back

A couple of those changes — and Klinsmann promised a few when he met the media on Tuesday — might arrive in defense after the Americans struggled with concentration lapses and organizational issues against the Dutch on Friday.

Most of the trouble arrived through issues on service into the penalty area. All three center backs — Ventura Alvarado, John Brooks and Michael Orozco — faltered in their attempts to cope with diagonal runs to meet inviting crosses from the flanks. There is some responsibility shouldered in the wide areas for failing to close down the ball properly, but there is also a pressing need to track runners more effectively.

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Germany isn’t quite as reliant on crossing given the preference for a false nine up front, but the Americans must monitor movement between and through the lines carefully. The task ahead requires concentration and discipline. Klinsmann noted he and the U.S. technical staff spent time reviewing video with the players between the two matches in a bid to point out how and where to shore up the issues.

“This is exactly what we need: We need the van Persies, the Huntelaars and the Götzes of the world going at us and showing us where we still make mistakes,” Klinsmann said. “If we would play teams that are lower-ranked than us, yes, every game helps, but it wouldn’t help as much as the big ones. These players play for the big clubs in the world, in the Champions League here, and they’re going to punish you for every little mistake, every positioning mistake you might do. Within a split-second, boom, the ball is in there, and you say, shoot. This is what we need. This is what we show our players. We go through the videos and say, ‘This is what you have to take back to your club environment, wherever that is, and consistently eliminate those mistakes to become a better player.’”

Strong midfield core holds the key to frustrating the Germans…

Klinsmann reaped the benefits of altering his formation on Friday and selecting Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Alfredo Morales together in the center of the park. The trio applied pressure well for most of the match and reduced the threats presented directly in front of the back four.

Those measures take on additional importance against Germany given the incessant movement within the ranks, the increased emphasis on retaining possession and the probing ability to play through the lines.

Even if Klinsmann opts to tinker with his choices in that department, the tenets are the same: The midfielders must exert immediate pressure on the ball (particularly on Mesut Özil and Bastian Schweinsteiger if they are selected) and restrict the amount of time and space afforded between the lines in order restrict the opportunities to play through the lines.

“We have to have good communication,” Beckerman said. “We have to put guys in good spots and make it hard for them to pass through the lines. But it’ll be difficult. It’s going to take everything we’ve got. At times, we’re going to be suffering out there. We’re going to have to be working for the guy next to us. And that guy’s going to be working for that guy. If we can do that, then hopefully we can limit some of them getting the ball and turning at our back four. And then we can catch them on the counter. it’ll be a difficult task, but one we’re looking forward to.”

… and setting the stage for the break once more

Bradley, in particularly, played a crucial role on Friday by claiming possession and driving the team forward from central midfield. His role as the protagonist is crucial, while the wide players and the forwards must break quickly to exploit potential opportunities behind the advanced German fullbacks.

These openings are temporal in nature, though. Any hesitation might close the window and permit Germany to drop back into its shape effectively. However, if the Americans can break as quickly and as efficiently as they did in the late stages on Friday, then they could cause the home side some trouble.

“It’s just about putting pressure on them and keeping the ball ourselves when we have the opportunity,” Diskerud said. “We have to move forward with numbers and disrupt their own play, if possible. We want to get into our rhythm and play our game. They want to do the same. We’ll see who can do that the best.”

Grab hold of the opportunity with both hands

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As the victory in Amsterdam on Friday night proved, it is not beyond the Americans to procure a result in this game or take a heavy defeat. The balance in that affair could have tipped either way at the critical juncture during the second half, but the American persistence ultimately prompted a stunning revival.

That level of endeavor is critical to the success or failure of this exercise. It is incumbent on the Americans to attack when prompted and commit numbers forward. Those are dangerous maneuvers against a team with the strength in depth Germany possesses, but they are necessary to extract the maximum benefits from this enticing night.

If the Americans respond accordingly, there are potential profits at stake. This game arrives at the end of a long European season for a German side hindered by absences (Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer are among the players omitted), fitness issues (newly signed Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira is expected to play for only a half) and injuries (Mats Hummels’ absence forces Joachim Löw to partner Shkodran Mustafi and Antonio Rüdiger in central defense).

There is no better time for the Americans to play the Germans. It is an opening they cannot afford to squander given the magnitude of the occasion. It might end in victory. It might end in defeat. But it must be taken nevertheless.

“There is a lot of respect, but we will try to take the game to Germany as well,” Klinsmann said. “We will try to come out. We will want to make another step, when you compare it to maybe a year ago where we were getting pushed more and more defensively. We want to come more out, take some risks and try to score to some goals here. It’s going to hopefully be a good step.”