The U.S. trots out what amounts to the junior varsity squad for Saturday’s friendly against Chile (10 P.M. EST, ESPN3.com and TelaFutra). Bob Bradley has called up his usual MLS/Scandinavian roster for the January camp, and this roster is particularly young: Alejandro Bedoya, who has six caps (all in 2010), is the most-capped player. The only player to have an international goal is 18 year-old Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo. In all, the team has a collective 23 caps among them. For comparison, Landon Donovan has 128 caps. Sacha Kljestan, a fairly young player that is hardly a national team regular, has 25 caps alone.
However, when I use the term “junior varsity” I do not mean it in a degrading way. Rather, it’s a young team that may include future national team stars. Against Colombia in October, Brek Shea became the first player born in the 1990s to earn a cap. This team has four players born in the ’90s, all of whom are seeking their second cap. Fourteen players in camp are 23 years old or younger.
With the Gold Cup beginning in just over four months and World Cup qualifying beginning as early as this fall, this may represent a last chance for players to play themselves into the picture for the upcoming critical matches before some of the World Cup key players begin to fade from the picture.
With that introduction, here are the five things I’m most interested in watching on Saturday night:
1) How will the forwards look?
It’s no secret that forward isn’t the strongest position for the U.S. American strikers have famously gone two consecutive World Cups without scoring a goal (although I do think that Jozy Altidore had a good World Cup despite his lack of goals). Two World Cup veterans— Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley– recently left their clubs in the domestic league for teams in Europe; both were forced to join second-division clubs. The best U.S. forward, Alitdore, struggles to get off the bench for Villarreal; the remaining forward from that team, Herculez Gomez, had scored once in fifteen appearances for Pachuca this season.
It is due to that current situation that so many U.S. fans were excited by the play of young Juan Agudelo and Teal Bunbury in November. Agudelo, the former academy star for the Red Bulls, emerged as a starter for New York in the playoffs as injuries slowed Thierry Henry. He parlayed his breakout performances over the two legs (which included a great assist for a brief, late equalizing goal in the second leg) into a cap, where he scored the winner against South Africa at just 17 years old (and became the rare forward to score a senior international goal before a senior club goal). Bunbury, meanwhile, had a 5-goal rookie campaign for Sporting Kansas City and may have more minutes available in Sporting’s 4-3-3 next season with the departure of former national teamer Josh Wolff. He will also have the chance to learn from Mexican World Cup veteran Omar Bravo next year. Bunbury appeared as a second-half sub against South Africa and looked promising.
The remaining forward options are more interesting and unconventional in background. Chris Wondolowski, 28 years old next week, came out of nowhere (11 goals in all competitions his first six years as a professional) to win the MLS Golden Boot with a stunning 18 goals in 26 regular season matches before adding a series-winner in the playoffs. He becomes the latest in a line of hot/in-form US forwards to get a previously-unexpected national team shot (see also: Jeff Cunningham in late 2009, Gomez, Buddle, and Conor Casey in 2009). Is Wondolowski just a fluke wonder— 12 of his goals came in the last 13 games of the season, including two hat tricks— or is he a late bloomer? While not physically impressive in the manner of Agudelo or Bunbury, Wondolowski demonstrated a great knack for finishing— something that US strikers could stand to use.
The other interesting forward option is the late addition to the camp, the Ukrainian-born Yevgeni (“Eugene”) Starikov. Starikov emerged on the scene literally from the middle of nowhere (I would classify Siberia as “nowhere”) emerging as a key player for FC Tom Tomsk while on loan from powerhouse Zenit St. Petersburg. No one is quite sure what to make of him as a prospect, but at just 21/22 he was making starts in one of the best non-Big Four leagues in Europe so he would seem to have some talent.
2) What formation does Bob Bradley use?
During the fall string of friendlies, Bradley experimented with a number of lineups besides the 4-4-2 (more of a 4-2-2-2) that he used for the most part during the previous cycle. Against Poland, he used a 4-5-1. Against Colombia, he used a 4-3-3 with three central midfielders (Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones) in vein of the Manchester City inverted triangle. Against South Africa, we saw both the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 that was so popular at the World Cup. With the depth that the US has in central midfield, I would not be surprised if the 4-2-3-1 emerged as the preferred formation this cycle. Could we see the young Norwegian-American Mikkel “Mix” Diskerud (who had the impressive game-winning assist at South Africa) playing the center of the 3 (as many speculate may emerge over time)?
3) Will depth emerge at the wide midfield positions?
While Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, the two stars of the last cycle, both play officially wide attacking midfield positions, neither are true wingers (both tend to have the freedom to move around the field in the 4-2-2-2) and the US has a lack of proven depth in the outside midfield. With Stuart Holden playing more and more centrally at Bolton Wanderers, there is an opportunity for young outside midfielders to prove themselves. Shea and Bedoya in particular could stand to gain significantly with strong performances, and Diskerud and Eric Alexander– both of whom play more inside but may play outside on Saturday– also have a lot to gain. While Shea impressed coaches from Real and Atletico Madrid while playing at centerback during the MLS Generation adidas trip to Spain, I still think that the 20 year-old’s immediate future is at winger. For the sake of the US, who already have a number of young centerbacks in the pool, I hope he can develop into a dynamic left-footed attacker. Bedoya, meanwhile, looks to continue his rise within the American ranks. Both (along with Diskerud) are probably on the Gold Cup roster bubble right now, showing an ability to provide service and creativity from the wings would go a long way towards earning themselves a spot on the roster.
4) How will the back line shake out?
As I mentioned, the U.S. does seem to have a number of potentially strong centerback options. Three of them— Ike Opara (injury), George John (injury), and Gale Agbossoumonde (on trial in Sweden)— aren’t here, but several of them are in camp. Will Tim Ream (possibly the best US centerback of any age with the ball at his feet) and Omar Gonzalez prove to be a long-term pairing? Is one-time rightback Marvell Wynne (whom I don’t think has played since his disastrous outing in a 3-1 loss at Costa Rica) a budding athletic centerback star (where he revived his career with Colorado)? Will Anthony Wallace become a player at left back, or will the US continue its century-long search for a reliable player there (although Jonathan Bornstein played very well at the World Cup)? Where does AJ DeLaGarza— generally the backup to fellow camper Sean Franklin at RB, an often-effective pairing with former college teammate Gonzalez– fit into the picture?
5) Do Jeff Larentowicz and Dax McCarty have a future with this team?
I feel bad for Larentowicz and McCarty in a way. Both of them have flourished in MLS, with McCarty having a great season for Dallas while Larentowicz may have been the most important addition to MLS Cup champion Colorado. As mentioned, central midfield is the deepest US position. However, one can never have enough depth. Unlike the central midfielders that went to South Africa (Logan Pause and Brian Carroll), both Larentowicz and McCarty seem to have some upside. Will they play enough to at least become options as qualifying stretches on and some injury-prone players (cough, Jermaine Jones, cough) fall in and out of form, or will their careers mirror Kyle Beckerman’s— probably a key player for the US five years ago but left behind by the current crop of talent?
My predicted lineup:
Also, while I’m not gunning for stickers, this strikes me as a 1-1 draw.