The United States men's national team began its road to Copa America Centenario Sunday with a 3-1 away victory over Puerto Rico in Bayamon. The first ever meeting between the sides marked the beginning of a series of three friendlies before the tournament's group stage commences in two weeks.
This match featured an oddball roster greatly disconnected from the roster that will feature in June. Among the 22 players available were seven players not included on the preliminary 40-man roster, and just 10 that made the cut for the final 23-man Copa roster. Despite the unusual circumstances, here's what we learned:
DeAndre Yedlin is the starting right back. Full Stop.
While the debate on the left side of the back line shall rage on, the conversation on the right side is over, and DeAndre Yedlin has ended it by himself. Yedlin will be the starting right back when the USA opens Group A play vs. Colombia on June 3. There can be no doubt now.
In the past, we've seen repeated experiments with Yedlin deployed as a winger with the national team. In this use, Klinsmann had sought to take advantage of Yedlin's speed in the attack while mitigating risk, at least until his defensive and tactical maturity improved sufficiently. Folks, that moment has arrived, and it didn't happen overnight.
Over the course of the past year at Sunderland, Yedlin's game has progressed tremendously. At Sunderland he's fought his way back off the bench under a demanding manager in Sam Allardyce, and successfully endured the rigors of a difficult Premier League relegation battle. What has emerged is a much more complete player: one with greater savvy and skill at taking on defenders going forward, but also one with ever-improving wisdom regarding when to stay at home. It's clear that Klinsmann's best XI lineup must include Yedlin at right back.
Jürgen will always be Jürgen
There likely never has been nor never will be a starting lineup submitted by ANY manager anywhere in the world that isn't called into question. That said, Jürgen Klinsmann seems to have a special knack for surprising us with wholly unpredictable lineup choices, for better or for worse. Sunday was no exception.
The XI vs. Puerto Rico featured a 4-4-2 with three defensive midfielders. This included bruising ball-winner Perry Kitchen lined up on the right side. Alfredo Morales lined up on the left side of midfield, with Danny Williams centrally behind Alejandro Bedoya. Meanwhile, Paul Arriola, in his USMNT debut, was asked to play much higher on the field than he is accustomed at the club level.
Are these criticisms? Not necessarily. The Kitchen choice is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher. But if you play devil's advocate for Klinsmann, you may argue that he likes to challenge players to perform outside of their comfort zones. That's fair. Kitchen did just fine in this role Sunday. Arriola excelled in his, scoring a goal and contributing an assist. The flip side of the argument is whether players are being put in the best situations to succeed, and if, at the same time, players more naturally suited to these "alternate" positions are being under-utilized in the process.
We know Jürgen will do this. That much is constant.
We have commenced the Summer of Wood
Are the stars aligning for Bobby Wood to emerge as a USMNT starter? The door is certainly wide open. If Sunday was any indication, Wood is ready to charge through that door at full speed.
Wood scored his fifth career senior team goal vs. Puerto Rico, all coming in the last twelve months. It was the type of goal that is exemplary of both how his game has evolved, and the type of offensive threat the U.S. so desperately needs. Wood has excelled at timing runs off the back shoulder of defenders, creating separation, charging directly at goal without fear, and clinical finishing. There's an ever-increasing confidence in his play, and the results continue to show on the field.
Continuing the sizzling form that saw him score 17 goals this season for Union Berlin, Wood shows no signs of letting off. Already with a Bundesliga transfer to Hamburger SV secured, he enters camp for Copa America fully free from distraction. For Wood, the injury to Jozy Altidore presents an opportunity. He's succeeded previously as a substitute for Jürgen Klinsmann. Now Wood is demanding, with his performances, to be a starting player. With each goal scored, those demands are becoming increasingly difficult for Klinsmann to ignore.