KENYA BROWN - Thursday, October 6, 2016
Preparations for the CONCACAF World Cup Hexagonal begin on Friday when the United States heads to Havana to take on Cuba in the first of their two games during the international break.
While Friday's game will be seen as a tune-up for the Americans' journey through the Hex in November, this encounter will also have some historical sentiment as it will be the first friendly the two teams will play against each other since 1947. With the re-opening of diplomatic ties between the governments of the two countries, sports are playing an increasingly high role in thawing the ice.
Putting politics aside, the US has fared very well against the Cubans on the field as they possess a 9-1-1 record against them. The last encounter between the two was a 6-0 thrashing by the US at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Cuba's last win over the Red, White, Blue goes back to that last friendly in 1947 as they walked all 5-2 winners.
While US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann should have no problems with earning a win in this game, the objective is to see which players will be worthy of receiving the call-up for the first two Hex games against heated rival Mexico and Costa Rica come November.
It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the goalkeeping battle. With both Tim Howard and Brad Guzan being left with their club teams for this round of games, it will give William Yarbrough, Ethan Horvath and David Bingham an excellent opportunity to impress and get their name in the conversation as to who can be depended on in the long-term.
Yarbrough, the Club Leon shot-stopper, will be making his return to the team after being with them during the CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2015. In between that time he lost his place in the starting line-up for the Liga MX team, but regained it and has not looked back since. He should certainly get his chance in goal and may well likely start against Cuba come Friday.
Bingham has been the undisputed number one with the San Jose Earthquakes and his play for the MLS team has earned him numerous call-ups to the US. There has been some improvement in his game, especially his decision making, so he should certainly get some time on the field during this game.
As for Horvath, this may be just another opportunity for him to gain experience while at camp. At 21 years old, the Colorado native is already making a name for himself in Norway with his club team, Molde. He has already gotten some experience being with the senior team at camp and traveled with them during their last two World Cup qualifiers in September, so his call-up may be just to continue to gain more experience as he is one for the future.
The US back line should also provide some indication as to how some players have progressed during their time away. The big concern will be the condition of John Brooks as he has recently recovered from a back injury. While he was only on the bench for Hertha Berlin during their game last weekend, Klinsmann may tread cautiously with how much he plays in this game as he does not want to feel the wrath of Hertha's from office and coaching staff. The two already have an agreement that he will only be available for this game, so there might not be too much expected out of him.
However, should Brooks suffer another injury before November's games, the question will be who can fill in the space at center back in his absence? Geoff Cameron should already have a spot filled, but there will be a battle between Omar Gonzalez and Steve Birnbaum to show who is capable of playing alongside the Stoke City man. Both will get their fair share of time on the field to impress.
It will interesting to see how Timmy Chandler fits into the team's plans going forward. While he has played well with Eintracht Frankfurt so far this season, he has yet to show how he can contribute to the national team. While he plays right back for the Bundesliga team, it seems that DeAndre Yedlin has that spot all to himself right now with the US. So Chandler's best option is left back. If he does get on the field, this could free up Johnson to play more an attacking role as he does with Borussia Mönchengladbach.
The midfield should see ample opportunities for Danny Williams and Perry Kitchen to show that they deserve to be on the roster come the Hex. With Jermaine Jones still out of action due to injury, Kyle Beckerman appearing to be out of the US' plans and Alejandro Bedoya pulling out of the team due to a rib injury, there is a crucial need to find players that can play alongside US captain Michael Bradley and keep the composure in the center of the park.
Williams, who has been called into several camps and played in games, has another chance to show he deserves to be part of the national team's plans. He has played well for Reading in the English Championship this season and his frustration at not being included in previous US teams for games could be just the inspiration that gets him to play well.
As for Kitchen, the recently appointed captain at Hearts comes in with a strong advantage. A tough-tackling midfielder who has no problem with doing the dirty work, he can certainly provide cover for Bradley to venture farther up field in the attack.
Both can look at Sacha Klejstan for inspiration as the New York Red Bulls midfielder earned his way back into the US team and topped it off with outstanding displays in games against Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago.
Watching play on the left should be a treat for US fans will see if the relationship between Johnson and wunderkind Christian Pulisic continues to develop. There were definite signs of it working out quite well in the Trinidad game and it will be great to see it flourishes even more if they see action in Havana.
As there is nothing on the line, this could be a chance to have up close look at Lynden Gooch. The 20-year-old has earned his way into the Sunderland first team this season and shown what he can add to the team's depth on the wings. He has got the speed and is not afraid to take on defenders. There may be a few players ahead of him on the depth charts, but it will be interesting to see what he can bring to the senior team.
While Julian Green is listed as a forward, he will most likely see action on the wing as well. The 21-year-old earned his way into the Bayern Munich first team during the summer but has not yet seen any playing time on the field. While Bayern head coach Carlo Ancelotti sees Green more as a striker than a winger, Klinsmann may see things differently at the national team level. So it will not be a surprise to see him playing on the right in this game.
Clint Dempsey's absence due to an irregular heartbeat has given Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood time to enhance their partnership up top and their call-ups to the team, this time, is to build on that ahead of the Mexico game.
Altidore has been in excellent form for both the US and Toronto FC since returning from another hamstring injury. In the 13 games he has played since returning to the lineup he has scored nine goals, while with the national team he has scored three (one against SVG and two against Trinidad and Tobago). While it is great to see the 26-year-old scoring again, Klinsmann will also look out for him as well as like with Brooks he does not want to jeopardize Altidore's health in this game.
Wood started out well with Hamburg as he scored two goals in the first two games of their Bundesliga season. However, he has gone quiet in their past four games. It is not his doing as the team has struggled with providing proper service to the 23-year-old, which has led to them dropping all the way to the bottom of the standings. This time away from club commitments could do him well and scoring a goal or two against Cuba could boost his confidence.
Jordan Morris should also see some playing time as he has picked up his game in recent weeks with the Seattle Sounders. His goals have not only showed him to be in good form, it has also helped his team push into contention for a playoff spot. While he may not start, he should fill in quite nicely up top alongside Wood or Altidore.
Cuba maybe coming into the game just to play well as their coach, Raul Mederos, said in an interview with a Cuban newspaper, but for the US it is a chance to have optimum preparation for November 11. While there should be no problems with winning the game, the important thing will be to see how the players will perform and who will standout to earn one of the 23 spots come next month.