Here are three of the many subplots to follow as the Americans start a year of transition:
1. One eye on the Olympics.
Shortly before the January camp convened, Klinsmann stressed the importance of U.S. qualifying for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. (It has missed the cut in two of the last three cycles, in 2004 and again in 2012). Six of the 23 players who made the final cut for the Chile and Panama games are age-eligible for the 2016 competition. Eight have yet to be capped at the senior level.
In hiring Caleb Porter to coach the Olympic-age players who failed to qualify for the 2012 soccer competition, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati dipped into the American college ranks. Porter’s success at Akron provided him a keen insight into players in their late teens and early 20s, but some spotty play and a couple of goalkeeping errors in the Concacaf qualifying tournament thwarted U.S. efforts to reach London.
This time around, Klinsmann did the hiring and selected national-team assistant coach and former Austrian international Andres Herzog has been hired. Such an arrangement is fairly common around the world, though circumstances of how a federation regards its Olympic program and the dynamics within the coaching staff can produce different structures.
The assignment of Herzog expands Klinsmann’s power within U.S. Soccer, which he has promised to overhaul and upgrade at many levels, not just the national team. Herzog and Klinsmann were teammates at Bayern Munich and before Herzog joined the U.S. staff in 2011 he served as an assistant coach for Austria and also directed the U-21s.
Klinsmann’s close interaction with under-20 head coach Tab Ramos, who was with the national team during its final World Cup preparations last year and sat on the team bench in Brazil, is part of the same process.
2. Back to the future in a 3-5-2?
Many are the ramifications if, as expected, Klinsmann experiments with a 3-5-2 formation in the next two games.
Such a system could ideally suit certain players, such as Jermaine Jones, who has been cast as a central defender by Klinsmann rather than the marauding midfield role he’s played for nearly his entire career.
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It could also be a boon for Brek Shea, a marauding threat on the left flank during his FC Dallas days but now a frustrated player trying to eradicate two rough years in England with expansion club Orlando City SC. A late callup for DeAndre Yedlin, who interrupted his acclimation to life with Tottenham Hotspur, sparked speculation he’d see time as the right mid in a 3-5-2.
There certainly needs to be cohesion and communication among the back players in a three-man defense. Some systems use the three defending zones, others use a pair of marking backs with a sweeper-like central player buttressing the back line. A coach can assign two central players to holding roles in front of the back three, or a more adventurous approach would designate one holding player and grant more attacking freedom to others.
Yet the key players in a 3-5-2 are often the wide men, who are tasked with covering the entire sideline and working effectively both in attack and defense. For many years, it was the system preferred by nearly all German Bundesliga teams as well as the national team, and such was the case during Klinsmann’s formative years at Stuttgart Kickers and VfB Stuttgart (1981-1989). Games were often determined by who won those mano-a-mano battles on the flanks,
Whether or not Klinsmann believes this could be the standard formation for years to come, it will give him -- as well as the fans and press -- a chance to see how players cope, individually and collectively. His fondness for placing players in unfamiliar situations is well-known and one of the national teams to use a 3-5-2 successfully in recent years is Chile.
3. Emerging from the doldrums.
Not every U.S. player who has left Europe the past few years has done so in desperation, but a case can be made that Shea and Jozy Altidore simply had no choice.
Upon Klinsmann’s taking over the national team in late summer of 2011, one major beneficiary was Shea. He was the only player to appear in each of Klinsmann’s first 10 games in charge and was an MVP finalist in 2011, when he scored a career-high 11 goals for FC Dallas. But a move to Stoke City in January 2013 stifled his career. He played only three games for Stoke and managed just a meager 14 games in loans to Barnsley and Birmingham. Since moving to England, he’s played only 341 minutes for the U.S. and scored two goals.
Altidore’s roller-coast fortunes in Europe started frustratingly in Spain with Villarreal, flared to life with AZ in the Netherlands and stalled out at Sunderland. He’s one of the most beleaguered national team players in recent memory, though his haul of 24 goals in 74 games is respectable. He’s part of yet another major shakeup at Toronto FC, swapped for Jermain Defoe, who scored 11 goals but suffered a groin injury and couldn’t get back to England fast enough.
Altidore is 25, Shea reaches that figure next month. Several uncapped players on the U.S. roster are nearly as old as they are, yet the combined caps of Altidore and Shea total more than 100. Many fans will be anxiously watching to see now much time the newbies get and how well they play, but the sagas of Altidore and Shea are heading into critical phases.