USA must use friendlies to solve key questions for Mexico playoff

WASHINGTON

There is an overarching objective in sight for the United States national team during this international window. The matches against Peru (live, Friday, 7:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports GO) and Brazil merit attention and care, but they serve primarily as preparation for the Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico next month.

The one-off match at the Rose Bowl is the priority now. Every action — from the players called into camp through the playing time doled out over the next two games — is taken with that encounter in mind. These two matches serve as the proving ground ahead of the ultimate test on Oct. 10.

“For us, it’s a huge opportunity to see our players — in details — in order to put the puzzle together for the Mexico game,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said on Wednesday.

Klinsmann enters this pair of friendlies with several quandaries to sort through in the wake of the fourth-place finish at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July. These five questions are the most pressing issues to sort out as the playoff approaches next month

Is Brad Guzan the man to deliver against Mexico?

Klinsmann made his point clear from the moment Tim Howard entered the frame once again: Brad Guzan is still the number one after his displays at the Gold Cup in July. His decision to reaffirm the pecking order — Guzan one, Howard two through the Mexico game — on Wednesday underscored his confidence in Guzan and his desire to maintain some semblance of stability in goal through the playoff next month.

The next two matches can either confirm that thinking or inspire reassessment. Only Klinsmann knows the current gap between first choice and second choice in his mind right now. Guzan must take his chance with both hands to ensure Klinsmann’s overt show of faith is justified. Otherwise, those memories of Howard’s performance against Belgium in Brazil last summer might just rise to the fore once more.

Is experience or potential the priority in central defense?

The decision to plump for potential over established credentials paved the way for Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks to emerge as the first-choice central defensive partnership over the past few months.

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Klinsmann invested considerable game-time — the duo started five games together after Alvarado made his debut for the national team in March — to form a partnership capable of enduring over the long-term. Alvarado and Brooks performed well enough in victories against Netherlands and Germany to earn the nod at the Gold Cup, but their places are under increasing threat after Klinsmann summoned seven central defenders for this camp.

“There is no kind of guarantee to anybody,” Klinsmann said. “It’s ongoing. We evaluate every training session — very intense training sessions. We want to see their personality. We want to see their soccer-specific qualities. And then we put the puzzle together as a team. It’s fascinating and it’s not easy for the players.”

Expect Klinsmann to contemplate his options carefully with Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron back in the picture and with Omar Gonzalez and Tim Ream still in the frame. Klinsmann prefers to feature a left-footed player on the left (Besler, Brooks, Ream) and a right-footed player on the right (Alvarado, Cameron, Gonzalez) for distribution purposes, but there are other priorities to weigh as well.

There are a host of combinations to contemplate among those choices, but the three pairings used in the most recent competitive matches — Alvarado and Brooks from Gold Cup, Besler and Cameron plus Besler and Gonzalez from the World Cup last year — offer at least some base familiarity. Cameron’s recent spell in central defense recommends him, while Besler and Gonzalez are both in good form for their MLS sides. Whether mixing and matching is on the table remains an open question given the magnitude of the game and the short run-up to it.

Awareness and consistency are perhaps the most important tenets with Mexico in mind. The movement of Javier Hernández, Raúl Jimeénez and Carlos Vela presents a constant threat, while the aerial presence of Oribe Peralta (injured for Mexico’s upcoming friendlies against Trinidad & Tobago and Argentina) supplies a threat given the occasional lapses from crosses and set pieces. The chosen duo must figure out a way to avoid getting pulled out of position and prevent those players from wriggling free more often than absolutely necessary.

How will the injuries at fullback impact the overall team shape?

Further adjustments in the fullback department might offer more support there. Klinsmann pinpointed DaMarcus Beasley (left) and Fabian Johnson (right) as his preferred choices at fullback on Wednesday, but he also noted both players were left out of this camp through injury.

Throw in the injury to Gold Cup right back Timothy Chandler and the natural choices in that department are thin. Klinsmann prefers his fullbacks to pose a threat on the overlap and push high up the field. He is restricted in that department now with only Greg Garza — more of a defense-first option on the left — in tow.

That issue does not mean he is short of experience in those spots, though. Cameron played most of the past few seasons on the right for Stoke, while Ream turned out on the left for Bolton Wanderers before his move to Fulham and started the Gold Cup third-place match in that spot. Both players are center backs by trade (or, in Cameron’s case, a versatile all-rounder with perhaps an ideal fit at center back), but they can feature at fullback if called upon. Michael Orozco is also an option on the right, while Garza is still in the mix on the left. Recently recalled Jonathan Spector supplies additional cover, too.

No matter the selection, there are adjustments ahead. Johnson is a marauding presence on either the right or the left. He often serves as a protagonist with his enterprising runs out of midfield. None of the potential replacements offers that sort of menace. His loss is a substantial one. Beasley’s steady work and vast experience makes his recovery a priority ahead of the Mexico game, too. With all of that said, the presence of two more conservative, defensive-oriented picks in that department might offer a boost given the alterations ahead for El Tri.

Are there adjustments ahead to cope with Mexico’s increased emphasis on wingers?

Mexico interim boss Ricardo Ferretti tipped his hand to a fundamental change with his initial squad selection. Ferretti prefers to play a 4-4-2 with traditional wingers. His Tigres UANL sides rely on direct, sharp runs from wide players to translate their usual effectiveness in possession into menace when the opponent cedes space. The inclusion of Javier Aquino (a peripheral figure under Miguel Herrera due to the lack of wingers in Herrera’s favored 5-3-2 shape) and Jesús Corona (often used as a substitute for similar reasons) reflects a desire to shift the burden for providing width from the wingbacks to players deployed further up the field.

The shift in thought process places considerable pressure on the Americans to figure out how to adapt. Klinsmann is not blessed with much pace in his squad, particularly with Beasley and Johnson sidelined. His choices on either side of midfield — with the notable exceptions of DeAndre Yedlin on the right and Gyasi Zardes on the left — operate with application, guile and intelligence as their primary strengths.

Mexico’s expected advantage in possession — a function of the priorities for both teams — leaves the Americans to sort out how to manage El Tri’s work in the wide areas. Managing space is a particularly important brief in those circumstances, especially if the clever Andrés Guardado operates on the left.  Expect the next couple of matches to provide a glimpse into the containment procedures with Peru’s willingness to break quickly and Brazil’s mobility in the wide areas.

Are there alternatives to Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey up front?

Once the Americans figure out how to blunt Mexico going forward, they must break quickly to exploit the corresponding space. Michael Bradley inevitably serves as the protagonist from midfield with his industry, his penchant for making timely runs into the penalty area and his service over the top, while Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey inevitably loom as the most likely players to benefit from those endeavors.

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Altidore is the only member of that triumvirate currently in camp. The bustling forward endured a particularly difficult summer as he dropped out of the squad after the Gold Cup group stage, but he returned to the side in good form after scoring three times in his past two Toronto FC outings.

“Jozy’s looking good,” Klinsmann said. “We’re really pleased with Jozy. You can see the last couple of weeks now that he got back on track. He got sharper. He got fitter. Obviously, he scored a couple of goals and that helped him confidence-wise. That’s the best confidence-booster for a striker, anyways. We’re really happy to have Jozy back.”

The health and form of Altidore and Dempsey (still battling injury ahead of a potential call-up for the Brazil game on Tuesday) is vital for the playoff, but there is a need for other choices, too. Klinsmann is running the rule over in-form Sandhausen forward Andrew Wooten in this camp, while Aron Jóhannsson and Bobby Wood are trying to convince him that they can perform in a big match. The hope is that one of those players — Jóhannsson remains the most likely alternative, even after a frustrating bout of wastefulness against Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinal — or the versatile Zardes can present an alternative in a pinch.