U.S. youngsters Wood, Nagbe, Pulisic making their case for a first-team spot
KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- Friendly matches often prove to be a fertile breeding ground for false impressions. Teams are experimenting, substitutions are plentiful and what works in one game can lead into a series of blind alleys when the matches really count.
Yet it's difficult to walk away from the United States' three recent matches and not come to the following conclusion: The kids are ready for the Copa America.
You've had Bobby Wood either scoring goals or setting them up, at times in an unfamiliar position on the wing. Darlington Nagbe has been a creative force whenever he has entered a match, and in Saturday's game against Bolivia he set up a goal for Christian Pulisic who, at 17 years and 253 days, became the youngest goal scorer in the modern era of the U.S. men's national team.
Even Gyasi Zardes -- whose tepid performance against Ecuador left him out of the feel-good vibe following that 1-0 win -- got into the act, scoring twice against La Verde. His first was a composed finish and the second all determination and grit to latch onto Wood's cross.
"I'm trying to grow in confidence," Zardes said. "Tonight helps a ton, but you can never be satisfied, you always have to keep working."
"Kid" is a relative term of course, and only Pulisic really fits that label. Wood is 23, Zardes is 24 and Nagbe will turn 26 next month. Their respective tenures are varied as well, but all seemed poised to have an impact on a side that until recently was looking stale.
The emergence of Nagbe and Pulisic in particular is welcome. The U.S. pool seemed bereft of creative types, but now the side has some depth in this area.
So is manager Jurgen Klinsmann ready to give that quartet the minutes needed to make an impact in the Copa? He should, and following Friday's demolition of Bolivia, he sounded like a man who would, but only in appropriate doses. After all, neither Nagbe nor Pulisic has ever started for the U.S.
"This is a process and the process is never-ending," Klinsmann said. "Those first couple of years when you are a pro, it's a big learning curve. How far this process takes you now into that Copa America, we'll take it one step at a time.
"We put the pieces together the best way that we get the results. But I think over the next couple of weeks, they will get the opportunity to play minutes and leave an impression and push more and more the established players towards their edge, which is their job. That's normal.
"It will be a very intense and interesting next couple of weeks."
The problem, if you can call it that, is that there are more players than there are available places in the lineup.
That is down to the 4-3-3 that Klinsmann has settled upon, one that features a three-man midfield composed of Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya that is as balanced as any in recent memory.
Bradley's comfort level appears to have skyrocketed now that he's a dedicated No. 6. Jones is still the havoc-creator, and Bedoya's craftiness has stepped to the forefront now that he's in a more central role than he has occupied in the past. It's a trio that looks best equipped to deal with Colombia's array of attacking talents like James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado, while also keeping Los Cafeteros honest on the defensive end.
That reality looks set to leave Nagbe as the odd man out, but his ability to come off the bench and influence matters in the past two matches was impressive -- especially against Ecuador -- and it seems likely that the U.S. will need to him to fill that role at some point during the tournament. He could be a powerful substitute card for Klinsmann to play.
There is a bit more wiggle room as it relates to the three forward spots, and Wood, Zardes and Pulisic are all in contention along with Graham Zusi and Clint Dempsey.
Zardes' speed is a distinctive quality in this group, though Wood has revealed a quick burst that allows him to get separation from defenders off the dribble. Pulisic has shown off the skills befitting a player who has played attacking midfield most of his life. It seems a certainty that the likes of Wood, Zardes and Pulisic will see the field to varying degrees.
It raises a question of just how vulnerable Dempsey's place in the lineup is. Granted, his spot still feels safe at the moment, and Dempsey was far more involved in the attack against Bolivia than he was against Ecuador. He had a hockey assist in the buildup to Zardes' first goal, connecting with Bedoya who then released the speedster.
But Dempsey hasn't always looked comfortable in the three-forward alignment Klinsmann has adopted, and Wood seems more so given that he played in that system at times last season with Union Berlin. They are different players to be sure -- Dempsey has the greater level of creativity -- but it will be interesting to see how Klinsmann's thinking in this area evolves as the tournament progresses.
For his part, Wood is eager to keep contributing.
"I think it's time for a lot of the younger players to step up," he said. "It's a new cycle, and I think we're all ready. We just have to find a good mixture of the veterans and the younger players, and I think we've been doing that pretty well."
The positive impressions are there. The upcoming weeks will reveal just how real they are.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.