With a place in Brazil already ensured, Jurgen Klinsmann leads his United States team into their final two World Cup qualifiers with the aim of beginning preparations for next year’s appearance on soccer’s biggest stage.
After an early slip-up in Honduras, the U.S. has won five of their next seven qualifiers to sit atop the Hexagonal and make matches at home to Jamaica on Friday and on the road in Panama next Tuesday mere formalities. The question for Klinsmann is how to approach the two matches: a chance to experiment with fringe players in case they are needed next summer, or as one of the few opportunities to further build a cohesive side to challenge at the World Cup?
One thing Klinsmann’s comments certainly suggest is that he is not sitting back on his laurels and doesn’t expect his players to either.
“Once you achieve the goal of qualifying, you understand that the next higher level is already waiting for us,” he told USSoccer.com. “The World Cup is a couple of levels higher up than World Cup Qualifying, even if it’s not an easy thing to go through. The benchmark in the World Cup is far higher, so whatever we do now already prepares us for that.
“Everything we do now sets the tone for summer of 2014, and therefore it’s important the players understand this is serious business. We want to see an improvement of the entire squad, and we want to see competition in every spot. You only have to say one word: Brazil. Then you automatically get fired up.”
Klinsmann’s decisions over his lineup have partly been made for him by injuries to experienced mainstays Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Dempsey has carried the burden for the U.S. so often in the past and has scored an impressive eight goals in the qualification campaign. Now is the chance to show that the team can still proper without Captain America.
In terms of alternatives against Jamaica, Klinsmann could either keep the team’s shape the same and opt for a more like-for-like replacement -- such as Landon Donovan or Mix Diskerud -- or experiment with two players up front and have either Aron Johansson or Eddie Johnson alongside Jozy Altidore.
“It opens up maybe some playing time for a Mix Diskerud or an Aron Johannsson,” Klinsmann theorized. “Maybe up top we can play Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson together. We will have a lot of discussions with the coaching staff on how to put the puzzle together.”
With Donovan likely to be occupying a wide berth at the World Cup, there would appear to be little value in moving the L.A. Galaxy man inside for these matches. Diskerud would add an intriguing creativity to the side, but at home against a weak Jamaica team, the bold choice would be to go with two men up front.
The direct threat of Eddie Johnson has served the U.S. well in coming back to beat Bosnia and against Mexico last month. However, against the more refined competition that the U.S. should now be preparing for, Johansson provides a more all-round presence and the ability, as he showed against Bosnia, to link-up with Altidore. With just over 30 minutes of action for the U.S., the Alabama-born, Icelandic-raised AZ Alkmaar striker warrants more time to show that he can make a major impact at the World Cup.
The choice of how to deal with Bradley’s absence is more straightforward. The Roma midfielder was absent for the two qualifiers in September and was replaced by Geoff Cameron against Costa Rica before his suspension meant Kyle Beckerman coming in against Mexico. Both offer a similar screening presence in front of the back four, but Cameron would appear to be ahead in Klinsmann’s thoughts right now.
Arguably neither anchorman will be needed against a Jamaica side that is winless through eight games of the Hexagonal and has yet to score a single goal away from home. While the Reggae Boyz still have the slimmest of chances of snagging a playoff spot if they can win in Kansas City, their tactics are still likely to revolve around sitting deep and hoping to take what they can on the break. Whether Klinsmann decides to pick his strongest team or looks toward the future with experimentation, this is a match that the U.S. should win without undue alarm.
Prediction: USA 2-0 Jamaica
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy)
Midfielders: Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Jermaine Jones (Schalke), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Landon Donovan (L.A. Galaxy), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)