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NWSL Review: The Year Two Exit Interview

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Come in, NWSL. Thanks for stopping by. I know you’re on your way out-of-town for the offseason. Are you just going home, or are you playing overseas until March? Regardless, I hope you have great offseason. You just let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

As you know, we do these exit interviews at the end of each season, but please, don’t think of this as a performance evaluation. I mean, it’s definitely is a performance evaluation — I’m legally obligated to say that — but I want you to think of it as a dialog. You’re evaluating me as much as we’re evaluating you! And yes, from a certain point of view, that’s also a total lie, but I want to make sure you’re comfortable.

Can I get you anything? A glass of water? Maybe another national television deal? Just asking because this might take a while. You’ve had a big year, and just looking at this list, wow there’s a lot of over.

So let’s get to it. As you know, two years isn’t very much time to establish a new professional league, so this process isn’t about comparing you to what we’d like to you be five, 10, 25 years from now. It’s about progress. All we want to see year-over-year is improvement, be that on the field, off, or in terms of your long-term potential. Right now, it’s all about career development.

So let’s talk about the skills we’d like to you develop:

source: AP
FC Kansas City players lift their championship trophy after beating the Seattle Reign FC in the NWSL championship soccer match Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

On the field

I have to hand it you, NWSL. In terms of on-field product, this was a great year. You were already ahead of the game last year when you were already better than Women’s Professional Soccer. But this year, you took it up another notch.

Let’s talk about your two big differences. The first, you got almost all of the U.S. Women’s National Team talents to come back home. Megan Rapinoe got out of her contract with Lyon. Christen Press moved to Chicago . Whitney Engen and Meghan Klingenburg eventually arrived in Houston. Add in Tobin Heath’s cameo in Portland, players like Amber Brooks, Sarah Hagen, and Yael Averbuch playing their parts, and the national team’s impact on the NWSL has almost hit its max. In terms of what that brings to the league, it’s obviously a plus.

I’ll be honest you, though. We’ve had some discussions among ourselves about whether this is in the best interest of the national team. Some players — say, Sydney Leroux, or Crystal Dunn — could probably benefit from playing in a different environment for a while. At least, a few of us have brought it up. Going forward, there’s a danger you, as a league, are just reinforcing what these players strengths without addressing their weaknesses. You might want to consider loaning more players to Europe each fall.

Ultimately, however, we decided it’s not the league’s job to make sure players are making the best choices. Your job is to improve the league, and while your partnership with U.S. Soccer is exerting some pressure on players to say home, they could still say “No”.  It’s not like the money’s better over here. That they’re not has helped improve the product.

But even more influential — and, quite frankly, we’re really excited about this — was getting somebody like Kim Little to come over. An international player (Scotland) of that caliber? One that comes in, wins MVP? That’s a huge boost to the product.

Nahomi Kawasumi (Japan)? Veronica Boquete (Spain)? Well done. Between those players, Western New York’s slew of exciting Spaniards, as well as players like Jodie Taylor in Washington (England), Nadine Angerer (Germany) and Steph Catley in Portland (Australia), the league’s injected a huge amount of talent. And it shows on the field.

Honestly, NWSL, I was in Seattle for the title game on Sunday, and I was blown away. That’s a product that rivals what you see in UEFA Champions League. We couldn’t have asked for a better national television showcase. Just … bravo.

Last year, at this time, we couldn’t have anticipated this kind of improvement. You’ve gone above and beyond, but now, you’ve also set a high bar. As much as you exceeded expectations, we’re going to expect this kind of talent going forward.

Grade: A

source: Getty Images
Laura Harvey here with Arsenal Ladies, led the Seattle to the league’s best regular season record, with Reign FC’s two losses in 24 games setting a new standard for success. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

On the sidelines

Last year, as you know, we pointed out a number of situations where we thought you could improve, and to your credit, a lot of them got addressed. Washington’s coaching situation was much better this season, and the results showed on the field (the team went from last place to the playoffs). Randy Waldrum won praise from his colleagues for his first year with expansion Houston. Paul Riley, a two-time Coach of the Year in WPS, returned to the sidelines in Portland. There were lot of places were the quality of coaching took a step forward.

More importantly, and this is something we weren’t anticipating last year, the competition among coaches is starting to get fierce. Laura Harvey’s really set a bar in Seattle. Vlatko Andonovski was Coach of the Year last year, but even he adjusted this year in Kansas City. Established names like Riley and Aaran Lines in Rochester are really being tested. They’re going to have to come stronger next season. That’s a good thing.

You can see in the trouble Riley and this year that your standard is higher. He was clearly the best coach in WPS, but in his first year in Portland, he came up short.

He’ll adjust. Lines will adjust. And the league will be much better for it. You’ve done a great job of pushing the envelope on the sidelines as well as one the field.

Grade: B+

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The Rose City Riveters have brought MLS-level fandom to Portland’s North End for the last two years. In 2014, the Thorns averaged a league-leading 13,352 fans per game. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

In the stands, off the field

We knew this was going to be your biggest challenge, and honestly, there are still some situations that worry us. Sky Blue seems like a long-term challenge. Does that team have a place in a league that’s successful two, four, eight years from now? They’ve got significant hurdles.

Boston also has issues, both on the field and off, while Western New York took a hit at the turnstiles this season. Both of those clubs have established track records, but as the league moves forward, will they be able to move with it? Western New York has the resources to adjust. Does Boston?

Those are the worries. Other places, we see the progress. Chicago drew better than last year, as did Seattle. Like Kansas City, the Reign elected to get closer to the heart of their city to try to be more assessable. Hopefully, that pays off in the long run.

Portland, of course, is your standard, but it’s not realistic to expect other teams to draw that many fans. They’re a terrible barometer. We’re here to measure progress, not success. In that light, more teams are making progress, perhaps more than we saw in either WPS or the Women’s United Soccer Association. It’s not difficult to imagine most of these teams surviving beyond this World Cup/Olympics cycle.

Grade: B-

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The NWSL makes almost every game available via its YouTube channel, allowing hardcore fans to take in as much as their time allows.

In fans’ homes

Offering all the games for free on YouTube continues to work. And the fact that almost every club’s broadcasts improved this year? That certainly helped. Right now, giving people access to as much of your soccer as possible is paramount. In that regard, mission accomplished.

Obviously, the quality of the broadcasts can improve. For the most part, you’ve solved the technical issues this season, but that’s not enough. At some point, the broadcast quality has to match the level of play, and right now, it’s just not there. Your teams need to continue to find better talent to present their games, preferably ones that follow the whole league (not just the home team).

Houston did a great job this season. Between Sebastian Salazar and Jen Cooper, the Dash had a perfect combination of polish, knowledge, and ambition with its broadcast talent. You could tell Salazar, not necessarily known as a women’s soccer guy, treated the games as an opportunity. And Cooper rivaled Seattle’s Lesle Gallimore as the league’s most knowledgable color commentator. One year in, Houston’s broadcasts are the standard.

I know not every team has the resources to create that product, but that should be the goal. All the money your teams are saving on U.S. national team talent? They should be putting more of it into the broadcast.

Each game is a new opportunity to sell new fans on the league. Every team needs to approach their product with that urgency.

Grade: C

source: AP
Players who’ve used the NWSL as a platform to improve have yet to impact U.S. head coach Jill Ellis’s squad. (AP)

Supplying the national team

Let’s not be coy about why you’re here. U.S. Soccer wants you to maintain its national team stars, if not outright develop them. Without that dimension, this league doesn’t exist.

However, we recognize it’s a two-way street. You’re certainly doing your part. When I was going through your rosters before this meeting, looking at all the players who could play for the national team, I was thrilled. With every team, I could pick out one or two names that deserve more consideration at the international level.

But, as you know, that’s not happening. I know people point to Portland’s Allie Long as an example of somebody who worked her way into the team through the league, but she was on the team’s radar before the Thorns ever kicked off. It’s not your fault, but U.S. Soccer seems unwilling to look at anybody you’re developing.

What’s important to me, and I think other fans, is that you’re giving them the option. If players like Keelin Winters and Brittany Taylor can’t get a look? At least they’re making your product better on the field.

Combine that with the improvement we’ve seen from national team regulars like Lauren Holiday and Becky Sauerbrunn — going from good players to among the best in the world at their positions — and I know you’re making an impact. Hopefully, going forward, that impact will grow.

Grade: Incomplete

source: AP
Seattle Reign FC’s Keelin Winters, left, goalie Hope Solo, second from right, and Megan Rapinoe, right, argue with official Margaret Domka late in the second half of the NWSL championship soccer match against FC Kansas City, Sunday, Aug. 31, 2014, in Tukwila, Wash. Kansas City won 2-1. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Into the future

You’re helping U.S. Soccer now, but come 2016, you may need to stand on your own. At least, you have to be prepared for a day the federation stops cutting checks, and after the 2016 Olympics, the federation may elect to make a decision about your funding. If there’s a point where it makes sense to pull out, that’s it.

So looking across the project, trying to see how many of your teams could stand on their own in two years, I’m not sure what to think. Portland can, of course, and you’ve created the same MLS link with Houston. If there’s a league in 2017, they’re probably going to be in it, and while it’s always concerning when a women’s team is set up to play second fiddle, the league would look stronger with a few more second fiddles in the short-term.

Western New York isn’t going anywhere, while Seattle has a path to success. You’d like to think the same about Kansas City, who continue to make progress, while Washington has been a historically successful “WoSo” market. Add in Chicago, a team with dedicated ownership and management that’s chipping away at problems, and you’ve got a number of potential success stories.

Here’s the problem: I want to count to eight. I want to go over this list of teams and be able to say with confidence that, come 2017, eight teams can stand on their own. I’m not saying make money – that’s unrealistic. I’m saying they have a viable foundation, one that allows them to persist at the top-level indefinitely.

So to end this interview, I’ll ask you a question: Can you honestly count to eight? I didn’t think so, but that’s okay. When we meet again in 2016, do you think you’ll be able to then?

Well, you better get working. A lot of people are expecting this league to be around. You can’t let them down.

Grade: ?

Copa America 2016 preview, Group A: USA, Colombia, Costa Rica, Paraguay

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USA

This will be the USA’s fourth Copa America appearance and they’ve struggled in this competition in the past with their best finish coming in 1995 when they finished fourth. Can the hosts finish in the top four this time?

Star player: Bobby Wood – I would’ve gone for Clint Dempsey but I think Wood will carry this team after a stunning season in Germany. He’s so sharp right now and is clinical.

Why USA will flop and pile more pressure on Klinsmann: The U.S. head coach has already stated their target as reaching the semifinals. That’s attainable but they’re in a very tough group to get out of. It is hard to see them getting out of this group, which will then pile more pressure on JK.

[ MORE: Full Copa America 2016 coverage ]

But this is how they’ll really battle through and make the semifinals: However, how many times have we written this U.S. team off? Plenty. And they always seem to have a surprise in them. They got out of the Group of Death in Brazil two years ago and it is all about getting a positive result in the opener against Colombia. Win that and the team, fans and the nation will believe. As the host nation, that’s a powerful thing.


Colombia 

James Rodriguez, Colombia
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They burst onto the scene as a reborn team at the 2014 World Cup but they’ve struggled to regain that form since. Colombia has won the Copa America once in its history, back in 2001 when Victor Aristizabal  ran the show for the host nation.

Star player: James Rodriguez – Real Madrid attacker will lead Colombia and thrives on being the main man. That’s what he will be this summer. Watch him go.

How Colombia can regain 2014 World Cup form: They’ve lost a spark in the last 12-18 months since the World Cup but there’s no doubt that Jose Pekerman’s men have the talent to succeed. The shackles will be off this summer and their fans travel well. Los Cafeteros will play in front of a sea of yellow wherever they go.

More than likely they’ll bow out in quarterfinals: Despite all of their attacking prowess, they’ll probably bow out at the quarterfinal stage just like they did at the last three major tournaments. That’s because defensively they’ve struggled to replace veterans such as Mario Yepes and some of their more experienced players in Radamel Falcao and Jackson Martinez won’t be in action this summer.


Costa Rica

Costa Rica and Mexico clash.
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This will be just the fifth time Costa Rica has participated in this tournament as a guest nation. They reached the quarterfinals in both 2001 and 2005.

Star player: Joel Campbell – He’s had an up and down season with Arsenal but his pace, power and clinical finishing mean he will be a real handful.

Los Ticos could surprise everyone and make a deep run: They did it in 2014, why not now? With Bryan Ruiz, Campbell , Keylor Navas and Celso Borges around, they have a real solid core of players who came within penalty kicks of a World Cup semifinal. They’ll surprise again.

However, they will likely just come up short due to defensive weakness: In defense they look a little week and you get the sense that if the balance of this team isn’t right, Navas will be a busy man.


Paraguay

Paraguay's forward Derlis Gonzalez celebrates after scoring against Brazil during their 2015 Copa America football championship quarter-final match, in Concepcion, Chile, on June 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ranked 7th out of the 10 CONMEBOL teams, it is always easy to underestimate Paraguay but they usually perform very well in this tournament. They reached the semifinals last summer in Chile and were runners up in Argentina in 2011.

Star player: Derlis Gonzalez – The Dynamo Kiev forward looked sharp last summer but without Roque Santa Cruz, there are no obvious stars on this team.

Why they will do better than anybody expects: It’s just what they always do. In the Copa America last summer they drew with Uruguay and Argentina in group play and knocked out Brazil on penalties in the quarterfinal. They will fight until the end.

Close, but no cigar: This time around you get the sense that this is a team in transition. Without Santa Cruz they will struggle for goals and fairytale is not in the stars this time.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group A, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Colombia, Costa Rica going through; USA and Paraguay going home

Marquee match: I’m going with USA vs. Colombia in the opener in Santa Clara at Levi Stadium on June 3. Amid much fanfare, expect a tense, exciting game. 

Top players to watch

1) James Rodriguez
2) Juan Cuadrado
3) Joel Campbell
4) Bobby Wood
5) Bryan Ruiz

Lionel Messi sets sights on Copa America glory in USA

Argentina's Lionel Messi celebrates after his teammate Gabriel Mercado scored his side's second goal against Chile during a 2018 Russia World Cup qualifying soccer match at the National Stadium in Santiago, Chile, Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/ Luis Hidalgo)
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Lionel Messi is fired up and ready to roll this summer.

The Barcelona and Argentina superstar, 28, will captain La Albiceleste at the 2016 Copa America Centenario being held across the United States of America this summer.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

Argentina is in Group D alongside Chile, Panama and Bolivia and they are the favorites to win the competition this summer.

Messi has been named FIFA’s World Player of the Year five times. He’s won every major trophy with Barcelona.

Yet one thing eludes him: glory with Argentina.

He was part of the Argentine Olympic squad which won Gold at Beijing in 2008 but the mercurial playmaker has never won a major trophy such as a World Cup or Copa America with Argentina.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Speaking to Sports Illustrated in first person ahead of this summer, Messi spoke of his fondness for the U.S. after multiple trips to play friendlies with club and country in recent years nd how he aims to end Argentina’s 23-year trophy drought this summer, especially after losing in both the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America finals.

“Of course, outside of my family nothing would make me happier than to win my first World Cup with Argentina in 2018. The Copa America this summer is an important step along the way, a chance to show that we can raise a senior trophy for the first time in 23 years. And if we can do that, it will also mean spending nearly a month in the U.S. and learning more about this special country. If you Americans are looking forward to seeing me in person, trust me: The feeling is mutual.”

See you this summer, Lionel.

Argentina has not won the World Cup since 1986 and the Copa America since 1993. They’re long overdue a trophy and Messi seems hellbent on delivering it during his time as skipper. Gerardo Martino’s side are among the 10 teams from CONMEBOL who will link with six nations from CONCACAF in an expanded format of Copa America to celebrate the competitions 100-year anniversary.

ProSoccerTalk will have full coverage of the entire 16-team Copa America Centenario tournament, which you can find here.

Five things Jose Mourinho must do at Manchester United

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29:  Jose Mourinho manager of Chelsea looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea at White Hart Lane on November 29, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
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Jose Mourinho will reportedly take charge of Manchester United before the end of this week.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks

The Portuguese coach, 53, has been out of a job since he left Chelsea last December but now the job he’s been muttering about and mentioning for over a decade has arrived.

“The Special One” seems to be the chosen one, at least when it comes to United’s hierarchy who are ready to hand him the keys with Louis Van Gaal out as boss on Monday.

[ MORE: What is USMNT’s best XI? ]

Mourinho has plenty of work to do to first restore United to the top of the PL and then to Europe.

Below is a quick checklist of what Mourinho must sort out first when he likely arrives at Old Trafford in the coming days.

He has a huge job on his hands but if anybody can do it, it’s Mourinho.


1 – Get a new, more powerful spine of the team

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 12: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Paris Saint-Germain beats Eliaquim Mangala (20) and Joe Hart of Manchester City to score, but his goal is disallowed during the UEFA Champions League quarter final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Paris Saint-Germain at the Etihad Stadium on April 12, 2016 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

A lot has been said about the laborious rate of play under LVG the best two seasons but not much has been said about why it’s been like that. Of course, pace is a huge factor in that but as is winning the ball back in key areas and United haven’t done that enough in midfield and defense. Getting in two destructive players in central midfield and central defense is key for this team. With Nemanja Matic linked to United, that would work in midfield. John Stones and Raphael Varane in central defense would also work and with Zlatan Ibrahimovic up top, boom, there’s your new spine of the team. It’s more powerful and able to dominate teams.

2 – Convince David De Gea to stay

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: David De Gea of Manchester United celebrates the opening goal scored by Juan Mata (not pictured) during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Watford at Old Trafford on March 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

This is a big one and has this storyline has somehow got lost in the shuffle a little in the past few months. Let’s not forget that De Gea missed United’s opening games of the season after he lost focus with his potential move to Real Madrid up in the air. He accepted it when it didn’t happen after an eleventh hour breakdown and the Spanish international was once again named the PL’s best goalkeeper. De Gea, 25, is key to this United team and to that strong spine we’re talking about. Without UEFA Champions League action to offer next season, Mourinho must convince him to stay at United as Real lurk in the background ready to activate his reported release clause.

3 – Play Wayne Rooney as a No. 10

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 02: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester United and Swansea City at Old Trafford on January 2, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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I’ve seen enough of Rooney in midfield in recent weeks to believe this is where his future lies. United’s captain even seems to believe it now too. However, he should play in a slightly more attacking role than he has been. That is where he’s at his best. We’ve seen him struggle with some of the easier passes and given the ball away in key possessions as he takes too many risks on the ball as a holding or deeper central midfielder. Play him just in front of two defensive midfielders and let him roam free behind a target man like Zlatan or Marcus Rashford.

4 – Keep faith in the youngsters

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 20: Daniel Rashford of Manchester United in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at Etihad Stadium on March 20, 2016 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Okay, so Jose has been terrible at doing this in the past. Wherever he has gone he’s had a short-term approach, a “win now, worry later” mentality which has left some of the teams in ruins after his departure. Yet, at United it can be argued that many of the youngsters giving their debuts this season by Van Gaal were the bright spots. Rashford is a special talent and Jesse Lingard is flourishing, while Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson showed promise. Then you have Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw and Memphis. The latter could get a new lease of life under Mourinho and, all of a sudden, Mourinho could have a very young team. That said, he’ll likely go out and bring in some experience form his days at Real Madrid or Chelsea but he should not neglect this opportunity to thrust youngsters into the limelight like he has done so readily in the past.

5 – Prioritize the Premier League

Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC
Jose Mourinho, Chelsea FC

He’s won plenty of FA Cups and League Cups with Chelsea in the past but it is time for Mourinho to fully focus on one thing when he arrives at United: finishing in the top four. United simply have to be in the UCL in 2017-18 and their failure to qualify for that tournament this season was the main reason LVG is out. Like Liverpool showed a few years ago and Leicester City showed us this season, when you only have one competition to focus on, then anything is possible. Play the kids in all of the Europa League, FA Cup and League Cup games and keep your star players hungry to succeed in the Premier League.

Ahead of Copa America, what is USMNT’s best XI?

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Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. national team has a big few weeks ahead of them.

[ MORE: What’s next for USMNT? ]

The USMNT have two more friendlies — Ecuador on Wednesday, then Bolivia on Saturday — before they face Colombia in the 2016 Copa America Centenario opener in Santa Clara, Calif. on June 3.

Klinsmann has already stated the USA’s goal is to reach the semifinals of the 16-team tournament as CONCACAF and CONMEBOL’s finest square off. Getting out of a tricky Group A will be a big achievement for the U.S. as Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay stand in their way.

[ MORE: Mourinho to hold United talks ]

With the Major League Soccer contingent of players just joining up with the squad, plus others leaving after taking part in the friendly win in Puerto Rico last Sunday, Klinsmann now has the majority of his final 23-man roster with him and available for selection.

Who should start against Colombia in 10 days time? Let’s take a look at the best XI Klinsmann can pick.


USMNT’s best XI

—– Guzan —–

— Yedlin — Cameron — Birnbaum — Johnson —

— Bradley — Jones —

— Bedoya — Dempsey — Zardes —

—– Wood —–

Thoughts

We know that Klinsmann has named Brad Guzan as his starter for the Copa America and given that he’s played more regularly than MLS-bound Tim Howard over the past six months, that’s understandable. Do I still think Howard is overall a better goalkeeper than Guzan? Yes.

The back four, for me, picks itself. DeAndre Yedlin has shown his development, especially defensively, as a solid right back at Sunderland this season. That loan move did him the world of good. Geoff Cameron is the clear leader in central defense (he has been struggling with a hamstring injury but should be good to go next Friday) and you have to select a center back who can compliment him best. I believe Steve Birnbaum is that man even though John Brooks may be the better overall player. Fabian Johnson should play at left back simply because the U.S. doesn’t have many options in that area. The Borussia Monchengladbach winger is incredibly useful going forward but needs must.

Central midfield should be locked down by Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, although Kyle Beckerman or Darlington Nagbe do have a chance of starting in that area to give Bradley the chance to play as the central attacking midfielder.

In an attacking midfield three I’ve gone for Alejandro Bedoya, Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes as I think they have the perfect mixture of pace, trickery and industry and they will support the man who has risen to stardom: Bobby Wood.

The hopes of Klinsmann’s team rest on the shoulders of Hamburg’s Hawaiian striker but whispers out of training camp suggest Wood is up to the challenge of leading the line after Jozy Altidore went down with an injury. Also, watch out for Christian Pulisic who will likely be used off the bench to support Wood. The 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund sensation can slot into any of the attacking midfield positions and is a real wildcard for Klinsmann to throw in when necessary.