Last chance to impress for some U.S. hopefuls against Panama
Game against Panama will replicate CONCACAF WC road qualifying
Likes of Geoff Cameron will look to build on a strong performance
Lack of striking options is still a concern for the U.S. national team
Fear the World Cup road qualifier in CONCACAF, where conditions are erratic and unpredictable, and where results are hard earned even when talent tilts so unevenly. Or so Jurgen Klinsmann has been told.
So the U.S. national team boss wanted to see for himself. Gathering hands-on experience for Klinsmann is a major reason his team is in Central America on Wednesday. The younger side of the player pool hopes to claim U.S. victory in a third consecutive friendly (while giving Klinsmann a taste of what's ahead in World Cup 2014 qualifying) against always-scrappy Panama. Here are five story lines to follow for the match at Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City. (8:30 p.m. ET, Galavision and ESPN3):
1. Some who shined, looking to shine twice. Center backs Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst were certainly on top of things during Saturday's 1-0 victory; on the other hand, Venezuela's limp attack presented only the meekest of challenges. Panama's attack might not be much better, although Blas Perez (a recent FC Dallas signee) certainly has enough size, power and game to turn a match. That's exactly what he did in June when the Panamanians stunned then-coach Bob Bradley and his U.S. crew in Gold Cup group play. The U.S. atoned in a subsequent elimination match, but the damage had been done; the loss surely factored into Bradley's ouster, and so much of Tim Ream's fall in confidence and form could be traced to that very night.
So perhaps challenges will arrive in larger portions, especially since the match is on the road. In fact, it might be nice if they did. Whether it's Bill Hamid or the other young keeper in camp, Sean Johnson (or even veteran Nick Rimando) in goal, it would be nice if the opposition was hearty enough to put more than one lone shot on net, at very least. (That's all Venezuela could muster.) So does Klinsmann stick with the same central pairing or give Jeff Parke a shot? Cameron is sure to play at some point, and with another strong night he could emerge as the biggest beneficiary of these two January friendlies.
2. Named captain, earning redemption. Saturday's 1-0 win was also momentous for Jermaine Jones, whom Klinsmann trusted with the captain's armband despite some spotty leadership history. Jones was available only because he's serving an eight-game Bundesliga suspension for violent play. Summoning someone recently caught red-handed, someone with a dodgy disciplinary rap sheet, could send the wrong message, perhaps signaling tacit approval for reckless bookings and cheap shots.
Regardless, setting morality and messages aside, Klinsmann's faith paid off for Jones and for the team in the short-term. As the most experienced American player Saturday, he needed to deliver in all areas, technique, tenacity and leadership. Jones did just that, demonstrating outstanding drive in the waning moments as the United States reached hard for the result.
And speaking of redemption, how about that Ricardo Clark? Being Americans, we love a story of redemption. When last we saw Clark in a national team shirt, things were not good at all. Rightly or wrongly, a lot that went wrong at World Cup 2010 landed at Clark's feet, and his confidence spiraled from there. To create some problems for Venezuela and then crack the game-winner Saturday in his first U.S. appearance in more than 18 months must feel amazing. "I just wanted to provide some energy coming onto the field, and it is an ideal way for me to make an impression," he said afterward. "I hope there is more to come for the national team. Goals help to build confidence."
3. Who needs to do more? Say this for meaningless friendlies: they can serve to narrow the field of prospects, separate the contenders from pretenders, as they say. While only a precious few can play their way up the depth chart based on performance in otherwise insignificant January appetizers, some players can and do eliminate themselves from further consideration. If they can't pass muster against a lightweight with the pressure on low boil, no reason to bother upping the ante.
Plus, Saturday's contest surely mimicked some qualifiers ahead, the matches at home against the hopelessly overmatched. CONCACAF teams come hunting draws when they play in the States, and Saturday's match had that look and feel, especially toward the end. It's up to U.S. players to "make" the game, to solve problems and to plot routes through the obstacles. Caution is not the order of the day.
So why couldn't Heath Pearce get forward with more urgency, or add more authority in his efforts to combine with Brek Shea? Same for A.J. DeLaGarza on the other side, except that his issues seem to be more technical (namely, he can't deliver quality crosses).
Jeff Larentowicz maintained tactical discipline (the first rule of holding midfielders) but his passing gets a little ordinary. He needs to do more to elbow his way into that logjam of central midfielders.
Graham Zusi has some nice qualities, which is why he's in camp. But being good at a lot of things and not particularly great at anything isn't enough at international level. That's how things looked Saturday. Zusi played expediently enough, moving balls along as Klinsmann has asked. But he didn't look particularly comfortable on the outside (not really his spot at Sporting Kansas City, in fairness) and rarely took on defenders. And he may not quite have the technical quickness or the tackling prowess to play on the inside.
Reviews were even mixed on Benny Feilhaber -- but aren't they always? Sometimes he looks like a game-changer with the vision to slice up a defense, but sometimes he's too easily pushed off the ball or looks a little too naive for the game's highest levels.
And then there are the strikers ...
4. Let's talk about those strikers: Even if service was nothing to shout about in Phoenix (and it certainly wasn't), Klinsmann's lone starting striker in a 4-2-3-1, Teal Bunbury, needed more adventure in his approach. He has to turn up more ways to be involved when the team enjoys so much possession. Shea, a winger, accounted for two of the best U.S. chances over the first 60-70 minutes; that's not saying much for a center forward.
But this, too, is from the "nothing new" department. If we're counting goals by those who line up primarily at striker (not counting Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey), U.S. front-runners have totaled just 13 goals in 32 matches since 2009.
At most positions, the top U.S. talent is in England or across the English Channel. But that's not exactly the case at striker where, aside from Jozy Altidore, the bulk of the depth chart is in camp and available for selection. The lack of strike power is a riddle that just refuses to be solved.
5. Last chance at the Klinsi saloon. This really is it for the fringe bunch. Ahead on the schedule for Klinsmann's men is a late-February test at Italy, and you can bet your favorite socks the Donovans, Dempseys and Tim Howards will be front-and-center in that one. From there, your next U.S. national team sighting will be in late May, when they gather to prep for World Cup qualifiers (and for a short series of friendlies still being arranged.)
Olympic qualifying will give a couple of players in camp, Bunbury notably, an opportunity to shine at international level. But for Pearce, DeLaGarza, Feilhaber, Zusi, Larentowicz, Chris Wondolowski, C.J. Sapong and others, the time is now.