What to watch for as the U.S. begins World Cup qualifying
By Daniel Rubens
The U.S. Men’s National Team begins its qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup on Friday when it hosts St. Vincent and the Grenadines in St. Louis (3:30 PM PT on ESPN2). It should be a relatively simple task for the Americans against the 129th-ranked team in the world, and the USMNT should cruise into the “Hex” as one of the top two teams in their group (which also contains Trinidad and Tobago and Guatemala), but Jurgen Klinsmann’s side hasn’t made things easy on itself in recent times. The Americans could easily run into some roadblocks in this fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying, and they’ll need to improve on what they’ve shown so far in 2015 if they want to have an easy road to Russia. For that to happen, they’ll need to start well, and in this week’s matchups with St. Vincent and Trinidad (3:25 PM PT on Tuesday on beIN), there will be plenty of storylines to keep an eye on. Here are three of the most prominent.
1. The Americans need a pair of good results
It’s been a bad year for Jurgen Klinsmann’s team. Aside from impressive friendly wins in Germany and the Netherlands, the USMNT has spent most of 2015 stuck in neutral, with a disappointing Gold Cup exit and the ensuing CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico that will keep the Americans out of the 2017 Confederations Cup the lowlights. Klinsmann now gets the
opportunity to refocus the squad ahead of an important and lengthy qualifying campaign, but it needs to start with a pair of positive performances this week. Frankly, that shouldn’t be too hard to deliver. St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a tiny nation that shouldn’t give the USMNT any problems, particularly on U.S. soil, and while a trip to Trinidad and Tobago carries with it some significant challenges, it’s nothing the Americans won’t be able to handle. But it’s been awhile since the Americans impressed, and they’ll need to do so again some time in the near future if Klinsmann wants to cool down the hot seat he’s sitting on. Friday represents a really good chance to get the new campaign started on the right foot, and it would be a major boost to the side’s confidence heading into a much tougher matchup on Tuesday to do so. If they can, they should be able to build on it moving forward, and that is what could turn this round of qualifying into a cakewalk.
2. How much action will the newcomers see?
Klinsmann called Matt Miazga and Darlington Nagbe up for a reason, and it probably wasn’t for them to sit on the bench. Nagbe, a Portland Timbers winger who just gained American citizenship, adds a bit of skill and class to the USMNT’s pool on the outside, and he could step straight in and become a key player for the squad. It’s obvious that the head coach thinks so, at least, given the fact that he called Nagbe into the team at the first possible opportunity. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see him start at least one of the games. Miazga is a slightly different story, but he’ll likely see action as well, if only to permanently cap-tie him to the U.S. (he’s also eligible to play for Poland, who are circling, even though he spent almost all of his youth career with the United States). The 20-year-old center back is arguably the USMNT’s brightest prospect, and he’s the closest to being ready to make an impact for the senior side. At 6-foot-4, he’s dominant in the air at both ends of the pitch, and he’s a tough defender who isn’t afraid to mix things up. After a successful season with the New York Red Bulls in which he won a spot and made 26 MLS starts, he deserves his chance. There’s the possibility that Klinsmann just wants to give him a taste of life with the senior side and see what he offers before sending him back down to the U-23s, but he should get a chance to play this week, even if it comes as a substitute. It’s by no means a guarantee — nothing is in the current USMNT setup — but a debut for the emerging youngster would give fans a nice glimpse of the future.
3. The Fabian Johnson conundrum
After asking Klinsmann to come off the field in the final 10 minutes of the CONCACAF Cup without a serious injury, Johnson was sent home to Germany and missed the USMNT’s last contest, a 1-0 loss to fellow CONCACAF power Costa Rica. The ensuing war of words was a messy one, with Klinsmann publicly calling out arguably his best player, and his club team responding in kind. Johnson, to his credit, has kept his mouth shut during the ordeal, and he’s turned it up on the pitch for Borussia Monchengladbach as well. Now, just one month later, he’s back with the side, and he should play a big part for the Americans this week and moving forward. That might not be in Klinsmann’s plans, though. If he was to immediately hand Johnson’s starting spot back, Klinsmann would risk looking weak on a player he himself accused of insubordination. It’s not a good look no matter what happens, as Johnson has established
himself this season as a threat for Gladbach and the best American attacker in Europe. That doesn’t mean he’ll play in the USMNT’s attack this week, as Klinsmann has shown that he prefers Johnson to play fullback, but he certainly fits somewhere in the best American XI. Whether or not he fits into the XI this week is the bigger question, and it depends on how in control Klinsmann wants to seem. If he wants to show his dominance over the side, Klinsmann won’t put Johnson out there to start both games. But if the manager wants to give his side the best chance he can to win, he’ll have Johnson in the XI for both games.