The United States men's national team opens the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying on Friday versus Antigua and Barbuda. It will be the fourth game of a five-game stretch that's already included friendly matches against Scotland, Brazil and Canada in the past two weeks.
The match in Tampa will also be Jürgen Klinsmann's first competitive international encounter as U.S. manager and his first since Germany defeated Portugal to take third place at the 2006 World Cup.
The three friendly matches yielded three different results. A convincing 5-1 win over the Scots featured the kind of fluid attacking Klinsmann is attempting to make a hallmark of this team. Against the five-time world champions in Brazil, a spotty effort on defense hampered the U.S. into a deficit too large to overcome in an open second half. North of the border, the Americans struggled to breakdown a stubborn defense and were almost punished late by the Canadian counter-punch.
Here are three questions of vital importance to the USMNT as they begin the World Cup qualification phase.
1) What to make of their form?
It's tough to say, because the year had started nicely enough with four straight victories including a historic win in Europe over Italy.
Brazil was always going to be a big, potentially humbling, task for this team, and the defense cracked a number of times under the high pressure. Despite the 4-1 score line, the U.S. was on even terms with Brazil in the second half, forcing some spectacular saves from the young Brazilian keeper and hitting woodwork on an Oguchi Onyewu header from a late corner kick.
The Canadian performance was flat. The U.S. couldn't find a rhythm against a side that was content with clogging the midfield and playing behind the ball. Only late in the affair did the U.S. threaten, resorting to the long ball with Clarence Goodson rising to a corner kick kept out by an acrobatic parry from the Canadian goalkeeper.
Given that the majority of the side is composed of players coming off the long European club season, many may be struggling with fitness. A rigorous 10-day training camp in Orlando preceded the current five-game stretch. Clint Dempsey's struggle to recover from a groin injury is well-chronicled but there are others who are likely playing on fatigued legs.
In the sense that Klinsmann billed this as a "five-game" tournament, it's a worrying sign that while the U.S. started strong, their play has steadily declined in each subsequent encounter.
After several days of rest and against a vastly inferior opponent in Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. should impose themselves once again. The true test and ultimate evaluation of this concentrated schedule will be the away match against Guatemala on June 12th.
2) Who will partner Bocanegra in defense?
The revolving door is spinning like the 34th Street Macy's during the holiday shopping season. Geoff Cameron, Onyewu and Goodson rotated in the central defense next to Carlos Bocanegra in the three friendlies.
Goodson's turn was the stand out of the three. While not spectacular he was solid at the back.
Goodson, who should start on Friday night, was also the choice last summer in the Gold Cup in the waning days of Bob Bradley's tenure. The 30-year-old defender captains Brøndby in the Danish Superliga.
He's got the size and has showed evolution in his positional awareness. Klinsmann, always abreast of his player’s developments at the club level, is impressed with Goodson's leadership qualities, according to the Tampa Bay Times, remarking, "That's what I asked them for at the beginning of the year. I said, 'You know, you're a national team player, I expect you to become leaders.'"
The search is likely to remain competitive throughout CONCACAF qualifying.
3) What of the Donovan-Dempsey combination?
One hundred and seven minutes is all the time Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have shared on the pitch in the national colors; that's about your average wait at the doctor's office before they tell you he's too busy that day to see you.
Klinsmann's emphasis on building offense through possession and the switch to the 4-3-3 would seem suited to the technical skill and attacking abilities of his two best wing players. Thus, after Donovan's nearly eight month absence from the USMNT, the eagerness to see the duo play together again was of major interest once Dempsey got healthy enough to appear in the Brazil game.
There was a brief glimpse of combination play against Canada, Dempsey coming in from a wider position to play a give-and-go into the box with Donovan. Otherwise what we've witnessed has been so far inconclusive.
If Herculez Gomez consistently plays the role of a stand-up striker, all the better for Dempsey and Donovan to work facing the goal, receiving the ball at their feet and going at defenders. That's the hope at least.
Coming off fine seasons as a professionals—undoubtedly Dempsey's best—both men, along with Michael Bradley, will be the focal points of a successful negotiation of the occasionally thorny qualification rounds.
If you are inclined to find out more about team USA's first opponent, I encourage you to check out this rather informative video.