U.S., Jurgen Klinsmann have questions to answer ahead of Copa America
Now that the glorified scrimmage that was Sunday's friendly against Puerto Rico is over, the U.S. men's national team's preparations for Copa America can really begin.
The 10 MLS players who comprise part of the Copa roster are free to join their teammates at last, and the same is true for Christian Pulisic. (Timothy Chandler, who helped Eintracht Frankfurt win its relegation playoff against FC Nuremberg on Monday, won't arrive until Tuesday afternoon).
Now U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann can go about finding answers to his personnel and tactical questions. He has already made a decision in goal, opting for Brad Guzan over Tim Howard, but there are several more topics to ponder.
1. Who are the starting center backs?
It has been a case of musical center backs for much of this cycle, which isn't to say that is Klinsmann's preference. There was a time when a modicum of stability had been achieved through the pairing of Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler. Then Besler got smacked in the head by a wayward clearance the day before the away World Cup qualifier against Guatemala, and the volatility returned.
Steve Birnbaum stepped in for the home qualifier against Guatemala and showed well alongside Cameron. But Cameron is dealing with a minor hamstring injury and sat out Sunday's match in Bayamon. John Brooks has yet to show a high level of consistency for the U.S., going back to last year's Gold Cup. Besler's recent form with Sporting Kansas City has been spotty as well.
If everyone is healthy, Cameron and Brooks would appear to have the inside track, but there is still time for that to change before the U.S. opener against Colombia on June 3 in Santa Clara, California. That said, Klinsmann needs to decide, and this decision will weigh heavily on the Americans' chances of getting out of the group stage.
2. One forward or two?
Coaches say all the time that too much is made of formations. But the reality is the U.S. has historically looked more fluid in attack with two frontrunners. During the previous cycle, the closer Clint Dempsey was to Jozy Altidore, the better off the U.S. was.
The U.S. alternated approaches in recent World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala, opting for two forwards in the loss in Guatemala City and one central striker in the return encounter, though the U.S. attacked in waves in a 4-0 win.
Bobby Wood has proved adept in both setups, as he scored 17 goals this season for a Union Berlin side that employed both systems. Perhaps more critically for the U.S., can he offer the hold-up play that injured striker Altidore was counted on to provide? If he can, that will allow Dempsey to take on the support striker role in which he has long thrived. If Wood can't, Dempsey might be asked to shoulder the bulk of that load -- again.
3. What will the midfield look like?
The choice of forward alignment will impact the shape of the midfield and vice versa. In the latter game against Guatemala, both Michael Bradley and Graham Zusi pushed up, secure in the knowledge that Kyle Beckerman was covering their backs. But Guatemala doesn't remotely resemble Colombia or even Costa Rica. Especially against Colombia, the Americans will need to settle on a system that leans more toward backline protection. That would hint at Beckerman taking the field in a diamond with which he has long been familiar.
Perhaps the bigger question is who between Bradley and Jermaine Jones will be given more attacking responsibility? Bradley has played a deeper role with Toronto FC, while Jones has excelled in an attacking midfield role for the Colorado Rapids. Reprising those roles would give the U.S. more security in midfield, yet Klinsmann has preferred to use Bradley further forward since just before the previous World Cup. It would seem out of character for him to change now.
4. Does youth get a chance?
This question is focused primarily on Borussia Dortmund midfielder Christian Pulisic, but it also applies to Darlington Nagbe and Perry Kitchen. Klinsmann insisted that he chose his roster based on which players could help him win now. But the midfield is aging, with Jones and Beckerman both 34, and the question of who can step up needs to be answered. There's also the continuing concern over where the next wave of creative players will come from.
For that reason, expect all three to get time, with Pulisic and Nagbe vying with Zusi to be Klinsmann's designated super-subs if the U.S. finds itself in need of a goal.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.