In just over a month's time the United States Men's National Team will play one of the biggest non-World Cup matches it has ever played in. The one-game playoff match with Mexico to see who qualifies for the 2017 Confederations Cup looms in the background as Jurgen Klinsmann's side plays two final friendlies to prepare.
On Friday, the USMNT take on Peru at RFK Stadium in what will undoubtedly be a very tough test. While FIFA ranks them 49th in their World Rankings, they made it all the way to the semifinals of Copa America this past summer losing out to eventual champions and the host country Chile.
It's been a rough couple of months for the U.S. national team. They were embarrassed in the Gold Cup by losing to Jamaica in the semifinals. Not only that but their performances against much lesser sides before their elimination were lackluster and unconvincing. The Americans have two matches to figure everything out and get ready for Mexico. It starts against Peru with a somewhat weakened roster. Here's what you should be looking for:
All eyes on Altidore
To say it was a rough Gold Cup for Jozy Altidore would be a massive understatement. The striker didn't score in the three group games, missed a penalty in the warm-up friendly beforehand, and looked unfit and uninspired. He was promptly sent home and replaced on the roster for the tournament's knockout rounds.
To be completely fair to Jozy, he suffered another hamstring injury about a month before the Gold Cup and was still in the process of coming back from it. Nevertheless, he lacked the hunger and motivation you would expect your number one striker to have. He was ineffective and honestly a detriment to the team when he was on the field.
Reports from the U.S. training camp say that Altidore is looking good and back to his old self. Everyone around U.S. Soccer better hope that is the case as he's still the best option available have up top. Yes, Aron Johannsson just moved to the Bundesliga, but he's still unproven at the international level. Jozy has gone through peaks and valleys throughout his whole career. For the USMNT's sake, we need a month-long peak to appear right now if they have aspirations of beating Mexico in October.
Will he start against Peru? Without Dempsey or Bradley available to play a creative role, it's a good bet that he will as he'll be the most experienced attacker on the roster.
No Bradley, No Dempsey
U.S. Soccer allowed Michael Bradley to skip this match and stay with his club team Toronto FC for their vital match against Seattle the day after. He will come into the squad for the Brazil match next week. Clint Dempsey was allowed to stay back as well. He's also been battling an injury and was a doubt anyways.
These two absences give Klinsmann a chance to give someone else a chance and carrying the attacking load. Who will be thrust into the spotlight and asked to play the creative influence?
One option is to switch to a flat 4-4-2 with a defensive midfielder (Danny Williams) playing next to a box-to-box midfielder like Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, or Jermaine Jones. Unfortunately, there just are no natural playmakers on the roster to try and play as a number 10. Diskerud is as close as it comes, but he's just not a dynamic attacking player. He's a complimentary player who is very good at keeping attacks alive, he's just not going to play that killer final ball.
Guessing the back line
If there weren't enough question marks with this team already, we haven't even gotten to the biggest one. The American back line has been a mess since the World Cup ended. Mixing and matching trying to find the right combinations, but never settling on a consistent setup.
World Cup veterans Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron missed out on the Gold Cup, but have been recalled to give the U.S. some sort of familiarity in the back. Ventura Alvarado, John Brooks, and Omar Gonzalez each took turns trying to figure it out at the Gold Cup but all three had their share of struggles.
There comes a point in time where you have to stop trying to get fancy with combinations and just stick with the most responsible and experienced players. With a lack of fullbacks on the roster due to injury, it's time to see the Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez pairing return to the center of defense. Then Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream at the fullback positions.
It's not an ideal situation, but it gets the most experienced and veteran defenders on the field at the same time. It's extremely difficult to predict what Klinsmann will ultimately decide to do, but this seems like a perfectly fine solution in a pinch.
Tim Howard is back from his self-imposed break. Brad Guzan is the number one and has done nothing to deserve losing his spot. What to do?
According to Klinsmann, Guzan is the man. He'll remain the starting goalkeeper and Howard is 100% the backup. The only problem is, Klinsmann says a lot of things and most of them don't usually hold up. Timmy is a USMNT legend and will cast a large shadow. As soon as a debatable goal is let in questions will be asked.
"Would Howard have made that save?"
As much as Jurgen would like us to believe there's no competition, one will inevitably develop naturally. The Mexico match is a huge one for the manager's national team tenure. If any doubts creep into his mind between now and October 10, don't be surprised to see him pull the trigger on a goalkeeper switch. It's not like he hasn't set a precedent of making rash lineup moves right before huge matches. Just ask Carlos Bocanegra.
Fresh blood up top
Altidore and Johannsson are the mainstays at striker on the roster. Klinsmann has called up a few younger players to help try knock in the goals.
Andrew Wooten is a new name to most fans. He plays in the 2. Bundesliga with Sandhausen. He started off this season with a remarkable five goals in three matches. He's never represented the U.S. at any level before. The 25-year-old was born in Bamberg, Germany and is yet another son of an American serviceman.
In addition to those two, Gyasi Zardes once again gets the call up. He played a key role for most of the Gold Cup and has had a solid season with the LA Galaxy. He's sometimes used as a wing player, but is more comfortable playing as a striker.
All three youngsters should be chomping at the bit to try and push Jozy and ArJo for those top two striker spots. If they get their chances in these friendlies, it'll definitely we worth keeping an eye on how they do.
Here is the lineup we'd like to see against Peru: