In just over a month’s time, the U.S. national team will take on Mexico at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio — the Americans most anticipated game of every four-year World Cup cycle.
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Up for first for Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT, though, are a pair of friendlies, against Cuba and New Zealand, beginning Friday (4 p.m. ET) in Havana, the first game to be played between the two countries on Cuban soil since 1947, and only the third all-time meeting in Cuba.
It’s the last chance Klinsmann has to evaluate his roster and lineup options ahead of the Nov. 11 showdown with El Tri. Friday will also serve as a final — or, first — opportunity for a number of USMNT hopefuls to stake their claim to a spot as we are increasingly closer to the 2018 World Cup in Russia than we are the distantly departed 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Most notably, both Brad Guzan and Tim Howard, co-no. 1 goalkeepers since Howard’s return to the USMNT fold last year, were both left off the 23-man roster (now 22 after Alejandro Bedoya withdrew due to injury and was not replaced), as Klinsmann opted for three youngsters from the next generation of American goalkeepers — David Bingham, Ethan Horvath and William Yarbrough — who have won a combined three USMNT caps between them. Guzan and Howard figure to remain first and second, in some order, on the depth chart as June 2018 approaches, but the third goalkeeper’s spot seems to be wide open with Nick Rimando increasingly absent, having last been called up for the 2016 Copa America Centenario this summer.
[ MORE: How will USMNT lineup against Cuba? ]
The four defenders who’ll start in front of the young ‘keeper(s) — average age of 24.7 — seems far more straightforward and established, with John Brooks and Geoff Cameron the logical and incumbent starting duo at center back, and DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson expected to flank them on either side. Omar Gonzalez is also back in the squad after a lengthy period of omission, and playing exceptionally well for his club team, Pachuca in Mexico.
Michael Bradley is the only surefire starter in the midfield once World Cup qualifying picks back up, with Jermaine Jones injured and out of action for the Colorado Rapids since July 4. Bedoya is next closest to a regular starter, meaning two massive question marks a month ahead of facing Mexico. Perry Kitchen, who was named new Hearts captain just six months after signing for the Scottish Premier League side, figures to make his case for consideration over the next week. A bit further forward, Klinsmann must show faith in his newfound dynamic duo, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan, who were far and away the best attacking players during the final set of third-round qualifiers in September.
At striker, Klinsmann finds himself in an unfamiliar position: picking between three healthy, in-form strikers, all of whom are scoring goals with alarming regularity. Jozy Altidore has eight goals in his last 10 games for Toronto FC; Jordan Morris bagged 12 goals as a rookie for the Seattle Sounders this season; and Bobby Wood has found the back of the net twice in six games for his new club, Hamburg in the Bundesliga. The last time the USMNT manager had one, let alone three, healthy, in-form strikers to pick from was … well, it’s been a while.
The current squad, along with the one expected to be name next month with minor tweaks, is easily one of the best Klinsmann has been able to call in during his five-year tenure. A healthy balance of youth and experience; the majority of players in good form at the moment; a number of newcomers kicking the door down and demanding more and more minutes. Don’t look now, but the vibe around the USMNT is the best it’s been in quite some time, and at just the perfect time.