U.S. faces a big test against the Netherlands - five things to watch for
The United States takes the field Friday evening in Amsterdam against the Netherlands for the first of a pair of friendlies that will go a long way toward revealing whether Jurgen Klinsmann's team is firing on all cylinders ahead of a Gold Cup challenge just one month away (2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).
Up to this point, Gold Cup prep amounted to a series of experimental rosters thrown out against lesser competition, including a game against a Mexican "B" side in mid-April. The U.S. won that game 2-0, but questions still remain about the makeup of Klinsmann's team.
With that in mind, the U.S. boss is turning out a mix of youth and veterans based in MLS, Liga MX, and Europe against two world powers over the course of the next week. First up is the Dutch, a challenge that will test the American group and reveal a few things about the state of the squad despite the underwhelming recent play of Guus Hiddink's side. Following that match, the U.S. faces Germany on June 10 as Klinsmann continues to push his team to play tough teams away from home in Europe, a tactic that has delivered mixed results.
There are many questions to be asked, and hopefully answered, before the Gold Cup kicks off on July 7 against Honduras.
1. What about the strikers?
Neither Jozy Altidore (the TFC forward is out with a hamstring injury) nor Clint Dempsey (away for the birth of his fourth child) is on the squad. That means the onus at striker falls to some combination of Juan Agudelo, Aron Johannsson, Chris Wondolowski, Gyasi Zardes, Rubio Rubin, and (perhaps), the recently added Jordan Morris.
Against Mexico, Klinsmann opted for a 4-4-2 diamond formation that utilized Zardes and Morris up top, and it paid dividends; Morris scored his first senior team goal, and Agudelo scored in a substitute appearance. Altidore might walk back into the starting lineup when healthy, but for the time being Klinsmann needs to sort out who he can rely on to start the Gold Cup. The players to watch here are the ultra-talented Agudelo, still fresh from his return to the national team, and Johannsson, who finished the Eredivisie season on a tear for AZ Alkmaar.
2. Who starts in the back?
Klinsmann chose to leave World Cup vets Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler at home, while Geoff Cameron is recovering from a long English season. That means the center back options are not only limited, they're young. Among the candidates to start in Amsterdam are Ventura Alvarado, the recent addition from Club America in Mexico, John Brooks, the World Cup goalscoring hero against Ghana, and Michael Orozco.
Both Alvarado and Brooks are 22. Klinsmann stated clearly after the roster announcement that he wants to see the two players during these friendlies, which means the only question is whether the pair start together or if the more experienced Orozco holds down one of the positions from the outset.
3. Should Klinsmann have concerns about Guzan's form?
With Tim Howard away from the team, the No. 1 goalkeeper position and perhaps the legacy of U.S. goalkeeping falls to Aston Villa man Brad Guzan. Under usual circumstances, there would be nothing to be worried about. Guzan is the obvious choice to succeed Howard, and there's really no doubt that he has the ability to maintain the high standards set by American keepers over the years.
However, Guzan lost his starting position at Villa down the stretch of the English season, so his confidence is naturally in question. If the U.S. is going to win this year's Gold Cup and avoid a playoff for the Confederations Cup spot, they'll need Guzan to be at the top of his game. The match against the Netherlands is sure to test him as the first opportunity to see if he has emotionally recovered from the benching with this club side.
4. What is the formation?
As is always the case, a close eye will be on Klinsmann's choices when it comes to formation and personnel. Recently, the U.S. head coach has turned to the aforementioned 4-4-2 diamond, a setup that requires width to come from the fullbacks and for two strikers to play in tandem without crowding the other out.
This roster does include a trio of players who fit the flank-flying bill at the back in DeAndre Yedlin, Brek Shea, and Timmy Chandler, allowing for a decent chance Klinsmann pulls the trigger on the same formation again. However, we should keep in mind that it's always possible he'll shift things around again, either because of the personnel, the strengths and likely setup of the opponent, or just as possible, pure whim.
5. What role will Michael Bradley play?
Bradley's role in Klinsmann system, regardless of formation, sits somewhere between "main creative force" and "box-to-box facilitator." However, Bradley, a defensive midfielder, hasn't always looked comfortable with the responsibilities of those roles. Still, Bradley remains Klinsmann's choice to be the attacking engine in the midfield, putting his performances under the microscope every time he takes the field.
If pushed too high, Bradley's passing loses some of its luster. Too deep, and he can't impact the game enough. Crucial to Bradley's game against the Netherlands will be whoever who sits behind him, working together with the TFC midfielder to recover the ball and push things forward. Kyle Beckerman is the natural choice, but Klinsmann might give the job to Danny Williams, a player mostly on the outside of the national team setup for the last two-plus years.
Jason Davis covers Major League Soccer and the United States national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @davisjsn.