Just like last summer, the U.S. national team has convened for a five-match series of friendlies and World Cup qualifiers set to take place from late May through mid June.
This year's gathering holds much greater significance, however, as two difficult friendlies will be followed by three Hexagonal matches that could put the team on the brink of qualification for Brazil 2014, or in a troubling situation heading into the homestretch.
As the United States gets set for Belgium and Germany, then qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Honduras, here are five things the team should be looking to accomplish by the the time the final whistle sounds in Sandy, Utah on June 18.
Get Jozy Altidore back among the goals
It's an old story by now, but Jozy Altidore's prolific goalscoring form for AZ combined with a barren run for the USA still has the ability to amaze: 31 goals in 41 appearances in all competitions for AZ in 2012-13, and zero goals in his last 10 appearances for the USA, dating back to November 2011.
The Eredivisie isn't a league known for its top-caliber defending, but such a disparity can't be explained away simply by Altidore facing more lenient defenses at club level. The 23-year-old plays in a fluid, attacking 4-3-3 with AZ, while he's often been left isolated playing as a lone striker with the U.S. national team. The irony won't be lost here, as the AZ system is essentially what Jurgen Klinsmann promised to bring to the USA, but has so far been unable to fully implement.
Regardless of the system, Klinsmann has to find a way to best utilize his team's top goalscoring threat. Altidore works most effectively when getting plenty of service near the box, so incorporating quality passers like Sacha Kljestan and Graham Zusi further up the field could kick-start Altidore's revival. In any case, the United States desperately needs Altidore to be scoring in order to qualify for, and ultimately, succeed at Brazil 2014.
Find out what Stuart Holden has
Just seeing Stuart Holden back in a U.S. camp will inspire plenty of optimism that the 27-year-old can still return to the form that saw him named Bolton's player of the year for the 2010-11 season. After nearly two full seasons missed with injury though, there are still plenty of questions about Holden's health and form.
The midfielder has still only played in five games since his return in February, four of which were on loan at Championship struggler Sheffield Wednesday. Klinsmann has been in touch with Holden's coaches at both Bolton and Wednesday, and their positive reports no doubt contributed to the midfielder's recall after nearly three years away from the national team. Still, there is much yet to be determined about Holden's ability to play at an international level, and it's unlikely he'll get much of a chance in June's Hexagonal games. Getting Holden minutes against Belgium and Germany would be a nice start, and the Gold Cup will continue the evaluation process.
Give Fabian Johnson minutes at left midfield
Hoffenheim's Fabian Johnson has been a key contributor as a left back for the United States since his 2011 debut. Though adept defensively, Johnson's biggest strengths are his pace, dribbling, passing and ability to take on defenders.
Johnson has played almost exclusively at left back for the USA, half because he's a quality option and half because there have been exactly zero other quality options. For the first time in a long time, however, Klinsmann has some depth at the position, with DaMarcus Beasley and Edgar Castillo each proving they deserve a look at left back for the Yanks.
Johnson's first start for the USA was against Slovenia in November 2011, and, playing as a midfielder, Johnson was a constant threat, winning the penalty kick which ultimately led to the winning goal. The U.S. roster was thin on wide options even before Brek Shea went back to Dallas for treatment on his troublesome calf. If Johnson is given another shot at left midfield and a viable left back option emerges, the United States will benefit greatly
Get the offense kick-started
The USA got two good results in the last pair of Hexagonal games with a 1-0 win over Costa Rica and 0-0 draw at Mexico. Within those two matches, though, lies two ugly stats: Four total shots and just one on target (Clint Dempsey's goal). The aforementioned shift of Fabian Johnson to left midfield could be a start to solving those issues, as could a shift to a two-striker system, or even handing opportunities to the promising but mostly untested duo of Joe Corona and Terrence Boyd. Because Klinsmann has already refused to address the problem by calling up a certain USA all-time leading goalscorer, further ineptitude in front of goal would see criticism fall on the team's coach even more than usual.
Secure at least six points in the Hexagonal
It seems hard to believe, but after the upcoming series of matches, the USA will be more than halfway through the Hexagonal, with six games played and four remaining. Klinsmann’s side weathered a tough three-game opening stretch, as an unexpected draw in Mexico leaves the team with four points in the bank and its two toughest road games already played. Now it's time to take advantage.
Following a game in Kingston against Jamaica, the Yanks have two eminently winnable games against Panama in Seattle and Honduras in Salt Lake City. When it comes to hostile CONCACAF away venues, Independence Park in Kingston can't compare with the Estadio Azteca or the Estadio Olímpico in Honduras, so at least a draw should be expected. After returning home, it is win or bust in Washington and Utah. The USA will be in pole position to wrap up qualification if it enters its final four matches with at least 10 points; it took just 16 points to secure automatic qualification in both 2006 and 2010.
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- Jozy Altidore
- Stuart Holden
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