Preview: USMNT at Puerto Rico

As a warm-up for the Copa America, the US Men’s National Team will take on Puerto Rico for the first time ever on Sunday (12 pm: FS1, Fox Soccer 2Go, Fox Sports Go, UniMás, Univision Deportes). The 22-man roster includes 15 players eligible to be selected for the Copa roster, with an additional seven not on the original 40-man preliminary roster.

Why a “transition” camp?

As noted, a good number of the players in camp for the friendly are not allowed to join the team for the Copa, even if they impress the heck out of everybody, because they weren’t a part of the provisional 40-man list. This game is being held explicitly to prep for the Copa, so what’s the point of bringing in guys who can’t play there?

In short, it’s to make sure the 15 guys who can play the Copa actually get what they need. MLS-based NT players won’t be released by their clubs until Monday, and holding a camp — let alone a match — with only 15 players isn’t a good idea. So why bother holding the game at all? According to Klinsmann, it’s to ensure that the Euro/Mex players stay in rhythm. With their seasons just completed (most of them—there’s no Christian Pulisic, as his club team Borussia Dortmund still has the German domestic cup championship to play this weekend) it was important not to let anyone slip into an offseason head space or lose fitness. Furthermore, it provides a chance for players yet to have their shot with the national team to get a look in. Players like Downingtown West alum Zach Steffen, for instance.

Defensive questions

Eric Lichaj was one of the blasts from the past included on the Copa roster long-list. Lichaj hasn’t been with the national team much since Jurgen Klinsmann’s hiring, but he’s been brought back as the US continues to seek consistent fullback play. But with DeAndre Yedlin seemingly blossoming during his loan spell with Sunderland, it might be a case of too little, too late, at least if he plays on the right side. And with Edgar Castillo returned to the fold as well (though not for this friendly, also due to club postseason commitments), Lichaj will need to make his mark.

In central defense, Matt Miazga’s move to Chelsea in midseason hasn’t resulted in much playing time, while John Brooks is coming off an injury-hit end of the season for Hertha Berlin. Meanwhile, old-head Michael Orozco and tweeners Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream make up the numbers. All have their merits, but CD under Klinsmann has yet to look settled, barring a short time when Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler held it down.

How do you solve a problem like Maria Jozy Altidore’s hamstring?

When last we heard from Jozy’s hammy, it was cynically removing him from contributing at the World Cup. Klinsmann was criticized then for failing to have anyone on the roster who could replace what Altidore does. Now, the hammy strikes again, taking Jozy out of contention for the Copa. In the time since the World Cup, Altidore’s skill and usefulness to the US has only grown, so surely Klinsmann has been working on finding backup for him. Right? RIGHT?

In a word, no. There is still no one who does what Jozy does as well as he does it. Like Altidore or not, he is very important to the US attack, and losing him yet again at the worst possible time is a big blow. The US does have options, though most of them are MLSers. Gyasi Zardes has had a blossoming of his own of late, and Clint Dempsey continues his ageless excellence, alongside his Seattle teammate Jordan Morris. All those guys will be here soon enough, but as for this weekend? Well, Julian Green makes another appearance after a fairly long absence, and he’s joined by Bobby Wood, who just capped a great season in the 2.Bundesliga with a transfer to Hamburg in the regular ol’ Bundesliga, Germany’s top flight.

So, what about Puerto Rico?

Something I didn’t know about Puerto Rico is that former US stalwart Chris Armas actually played for them before being capped by the US. His time with the PR team coincided with some of their best ever play, but that was in 1993–94. Since then, PR has been pretty bad. They’re minnows, as you might expect. The US should beat them, and handily.

But of course the result isn’t really important. What’s important is that key word, rhythm. Getting Bobby Wood on the score sheet; seeing Julian Green get some touches; keeping a clean sheet, regardless of who’s in the back line; and seeing which goalkeeper among Brad Guzan and Tim Howard is in the least-bad form—these are what to watch for. Do that, beat Puerto Rico, and then we can talk when everybody else arrives. Prediction: USMNT 3–0 Puerto Rico.

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