Six points should clinch.
The objective for back-to-back games against Guatemala Friday and Tuesday is clear: win them both, even if road wins can be very hard to find in Central America, and attentions will be divided -- as was the player pool -- by a do-or-die Olympic playoff series for the U-23s against Colombia played on the same days.
Polishing off Guatemala -- which has recalled veteran MLS striker Carlos Ruiz, his nation’s top scorer with 59 goals -- would enable head coach Jurgen Klinsmann to handle the Copa America Centenario and remaining two qualifiers in the fall in any way he chose, unless the U-23s qualify for the Olympic Games. With four points from its first two games against St. Vincent & The Grenadines (6-1) and Trinidad & Tobago (0-0), the senior team can secure a spot in the Hexagonal by winning twice as long as T&T at least splits against the St. Vincent & The Grenadines.
Klinsmann decided to place centerback John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin on the senior team rather than the U-23s, though he has not ruled out moving players back and forth depending on the results of the first legs to be played in Guatemala City and Barranquilla. Jordan Morris, who has played nine games and scored one goal for the senior team, is with the U-23s.“Our goal definitely for the two Guatemala fixtures is six points,” said Klinsmann on the U.S. Soccer Web site. “We badly want to get the job done before the Copa America Centenario if possible.
“We know it’s going to be very difficult, especially in Guatemala City, but it’s also going to be difficult in Columbus, and there we have a great crowd behind us. We tried to make sure there’s the right mix of players, and we are convinced that this roster is strong enough to get the job done.”
Klinsmann named 26 players to the senior roster, 18 of which have played in qualifiers before and 15 who were named to the 2014 World Cup squad. It’s a sign of the national team’s transitional phase that players highly regarded by many fans and observers -- such as Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe, Lee Nguyen, Ethan Finlay and Edgar Castillo -– have been named as well as the bulk of the 2014 team.
Klinsmann will most likely drop several players after the first game against Guatemala, pending the result, so it’s logical that he would roll out a veteran-laden lineup to cope with the crowd fervor, officiating quirks, and environmental extremes often encountered on the road in Concacaf. But he’s shown in the past a gambler’s boldness, and if he truly sees three road points as achievable the game plan and player selection could be dramatic.
He has plenty of veteran cover at every position, starting in goal, where Brad Guzan (9 qualifiers) and Tim Howard (30). They could split the games against Guatemala though Howard has lost his starting spot at Everton and confirmed Monday he will move to MLS to play for Colorado in the summer. Guzan has reclaimed the No. 1 shirt at Aston Villa but a bad error enabled Swansea City to post a 1-0 victory last weekend that drove last-place Villa further behind the other relegation candidates.
The recall of Castillo, not seen in a U.S. shirt since an appearance against Ukraine two years ago, might serve multiple purposes. He adds speed, has solidified a defensive role at Monterrey after changing clubs twice since the Ukraine match, and could be a valuable element in the effort to contain winger Marco Pappa, who scored on a blistering free kick when the teams met four years ago in the Guatemalan capital.
“He’s a player with a lot of quality -- you have to watch him on set pieces and also he’s very skillful and has a really good left foot,” said former Seattle teammate Clint Dempsey of Pappa. “You need to make sure you’re aware of that and try to do a good job of limiting his touches in the attacking third. I miss him in Seattle, I wish he was still there. He’s a great player and a great person.”
Klinsmann has all of his preferred choices available at centerback, including ex-Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, now a fixture in the back for Pachuca. Yedlin adds even more speed at right back, and regular playing time at Hertha Berlin is shaping Brooks into a formidable central figure. Matt Besler seems certain to start at least one of the games.
Whichever quartet Klinsmann picks in the back will be tasked with subduing Ruiz, who is 35 yet as combative and clever as ever if not so nimble as in his younger days. This is his fifth World Cup qualifying campaign and every bit of contact could be risky for the Americans who challenge him.
The role of Michael Bradley in midfield might be tweaked but his inclusion is assured, as is probably that of Alejandro Bedoya, currently in excellent form for Nantes. Yedlin could be pushed higher up the field to accommodate someone else at right back and also get at a Guatemalan back line that is certainly beatable.
Because of his MLS suspension, Jermaine Jones isn’t available and since Kyle Beckerman is more likely to start a game than come off the bench, this could be the one. Nguyen, Nagbe and others are attacking options if the U.S. needs a goal, and only Klinsmann knows where Fabian Johnson and Gyasi Zardes are best utilized for this assignment, either as starters or off the bench.
Dempsey hasn’t been in the greatest form for Seattle, which is the only MLS team without a point after three games. Wood has been bagging goals (14) for fun at Union Berlin and so has Chris Wondolowski, scorer of a goal in each of San Jose’s first three games. Dempsey (from the penalty spot) and Wondolowski were among the scorers last July when the USA thumped Guatemala, 4-0, in its last tune-up match for the Gold Cup.
The enigma of Jozy Altidore (coming back from a preseason hamstring injury) looms once again but with 12 goals in 28 qualifiers he’s got a good track record in these situations.