Nagbe, Finlay, Nguyen, Diskerud looking to make move at U.S. camp
CARSON, California -- The annual January camp for the U.S. national team has long been a vehicle for catapulting players into bigger roles.
The list of performers who have taken advantage includes World Cup veterans Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron. Last year it was Gyasi Zardes, who went on to make a whopping 19 appearances for the U.S. in 2015.
In the current incarnation, opportunity is beckoning once again, even as manager Jurgen Klinsmann hints that the concept of the January camp is nearing the end of its shelf life.
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One question that has plagued the U.S. team in the past year is where the next wave of creative players is going to come from. Landon Donovan has retired. Klinsmann indicated last week that Clint Dempsey is still in his plans, but at age 32, it's fair to wonder for how long.
The CONCACAF Cup defeat to Mexico, as well as the friendly loss to Brazil, stand out as games in which the U.S. struggled to impose itself offensively. For all the talk about forwards like Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris, getting them the ball in good positions remains a significant area of need.
So for the likes of Portland Timbers midfielder Darlington Nagbe, Columbus Crew winger Ethan Finlay, New York City FC midfielder Mix Diskerud and New England Revolution attacker Lee Nguyen, the camp and subsequent games against Iceland this Sunday and Canada five days later amount to an opening that is there to be exploited.
The aforementioned players each offer something different. Nguyen is the conventional No. 10, Finlay provides more of a classic wing presence, Nagbe is more of a two-way player -- although his strengths lie more on the offensive side of the ball -- and Diskerud is a crafty, attacking player.
"You always hope for the next player around the block to bring this piece of being a difference-maker," Klinsmann said in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "So if you come in, I think Lee [Nguyen] could be a player that brings a lot of vision on the field. Darlington [Nagbe] has this natural gift to keep things flowing."
Nagbe has moved up the depth chart in the past few months after receiving his U.S. citizenship back in September. He appeared as a substitute in two World Cup qualifiers in November, and looks to have the inside track to take on more responsibility.
At club level, a move late in the season to more of a central-attacking role alongside Diego Valeri proved to be a boon for Nagbe, culminating in an MLS Cup triumph with Portland. The move allowed him to get on the ball more and bring both composure and chaos to the game. Under Klinsmann, Nagbe has been placed in a wide midfield role, but with a brief to use his playmaking ability in central positions.
"My mentality here is the same as it is with the Timbers: Be patient and wait for the opportunity to show what you can do," Nagbe said. "Keep it simple, make sure you're clean with your touches, and then when you do get gaps and opportunities you try to take them."
Nguyen has been on the fringes of the U.S. team for much of the past year. He made three appearances, but all of them were off the bench and amounted to just 78 minutes. Nguyen's previous appearances in national team camps give him a good idea of what Klinsmann wants. Now it's a question of impressing under game conditions.
"The coaching staff, they have high demands and they've been watching us during the season, so they know what to expect," Nguyen said. "This camp is to push ourselves not only fitness-wise but to get to that higher level. For me, it's always an honor to be here, no matter what. Whatever piece I have to play, I'm grateful. But you always want to push for more. That's what these camps are for, to keep pushing and make a statement."
Diskerud remains something of an enigma. He's a player who has had his opportunities, including as a member of the 2014 World Cup squad, yet he remains a man in search of a dedicated midfield position. Is he better off starting out wide and then tucking inside when the opportunity allows? Is he a deep-lying playmaker or better off further up field? Diskerud's strength appears to lie further up field, but he appears to have been passed up by others.
As for Finlay, this is his first foray into the international game. By his own admission, his game "is not super elaborate" but he can threaten both with his crossing ability and his penchant for cutting inside and striking at goal.
"Off-the-ball movement remains extremely important in my game, and then when I get the ball, be dynamic," Finlay said. "I think when you get in the final third, whether you're playing for your national team or you're playing for your club team, try to make something happen and make an impact on the game. Those are two things I look to hopefully bring to the squad."
It is now up to Klinsmann to see to what extent these attacking pieces can be fused into the lineup alongside mainstays like Michael Bradley, and it's up to the players to take advantage. There always seems to be one who does, and the ensuing months will reveal precisely who will take that next step.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.