1. Will Dempsey & Altidore Ignite the Dormant Offense?
Coming off scintillating performances against Germany, USMNT fans will be wondering if the catalysts of that offensive assault, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, will maintain their form versus their CONCACAF foes. Jozy Altidore just completed the finest season of his blossoming career, scoring over 30 goals in all competitions for AZ Alkmaar. Meanwhile, Dempsey has been spearheading the U.S. attack throughout the qualifying campaign and has moved into sole possession of second all-time leading scorer for the U.S. with his two goals against Germany. As these two go, so does the U.S. It is critical that these two stay active and connected with one another to energize the U.S. attack in these all-important next three qualifiers.
2. Which Tandem will be Paired Together at Centerback?
The U.S. has yet to fully transition from the Oguchi Onyewu – Carlos Bocanegra centerback pairing that served the team so well for so many years. Since the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. has seen flashes of brilliance from Omar Gonzalez, Geoff Cameron, and Matt Besler. However, it must be noted that each of the three (and Clarence Goodson as well) have shown moments of inexperience and have been punished for mistakes. Coming off two stiff tests from European offensive juggernauts in Belgium and Germany, it will be vital to see if these young and talented centerbacks have learned their lessons and are ready to stabilize the U.S. backline. Fortunately for the U.S., their next three opponents do not sport any forwards of the caliber of Christian Benteke, Romelu Lukaku, or Miroslav Klose. I expect to see an Omar Gonzalez – Matt Besler pairing versus Jamaica, and I know USMNT fans will be eager to see a consistent centerback pairing emerge during these three qualifiers.
3. How will the Dual-Nationals Perform?
One of the staples of the Jurgen Klinsmann era has been the recruitment and integration of dual-nationals within the U.S. team. Since his hiring, Klinsmann has brought Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco-Fiscal into the fold as well as a number of mainstays (Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Herculez Gomez, and Terrence Boyd). It will be interesting to see how these players perform and adapt to the rigors of their first true CONCACAF World Cup qualifying campaign. Note that Herculez Gomez, a former favorite of Klinsmann, has lost his starting role and will be hungry to work his way back into the line-up.
4. Which Young or Inexperienced Players will Emerge?
If history is any indication, there is a strong trend of young U.S. players emerging during the qualifying campaign before becoming significant contributors to the World Cup team in the following year. From Landon Donovan and Damarcus Beasley in ’02 to Clint Dempsey in ’06 to Stuart Holden and Benni Feilhaber in ’10, young U.S. players have made a habit out of using the qualifying experience as a springboard to World Cup success. Which young U.S. players will rise to the occasion in this year’s campaign? Will Joe Corona or Terrence Boyd make the most of any and all opportunities they are given?
5. How will Klinsmann Approach these Three Matches?
It seems that Klinsmann’s approval rating fluctuates amongst USMNT fans more frequently than that of Congress. When Sunil Gulati decided to end Bob Bradley’s tenure and complete his courtship of the former German Manager, he tasked him with achieving success in the World Cup and revolutionizing the American style of play. While the end goal is to lift the U.S. to success in Brazil one year from today, Klinsmann understands that these qualifiers are critical to building the foundation and cultivating the proactive, attacking style he championed upon his hiring. Although the primarily goal is to earn points, Klinsmann would be wise to take advantage of these opportunities to test his team in meaningful matches in pressure-filled environments. In addition, with three games in succession, Klinsmann will be challenged to utilize many players and adjust his tactics often to produce results.
After losing a touch match to Mexico 1-0 on Tuesday night, the Jamaican team will be determined to get some points out of the U.S. match in the second of their two-match home stand. These Jamaicans, regarded as the weakest of the six remaining teams in the hexagonal, are a fast, athletic side that will look to catch the U.S. on the counter-attack. They posed a stiff test against Mexico and were organized in the back, but did not ultimately have enough offensive firepower or creativity to score. From previous qualifiers, the USMNT knows that the weather will be sweltering and the field conditions will be borderline unplayable, so let’s hope the Americans do not let the adverse playing conditions faze them in their trip to Kingston.
Ryan Johnson – A fast, dangerous forward who has blossomed under the tutelage of Caleb Porter, the former collegiate head man at Akron, with the Portland Timbers this season.
Donovan Ricketts – The long goalkeeper who has made nearly 100 appearances for the Reggae Boyz will look to deny the U.S. attach from finding the back of the net.
Darren Mattocks – Another Caleb Porter protégé and former #2 pick in the 2012 MLS draft is an athletic, skillful player who will look to get in behind the U.S. defense and stretch the backline.
Panama, currently leading the Hexagonal group after the first three match fixtures, will be looking to capitalize on its fast start and earn its first World Cup qualification in its history. Although a World Cup bid has eluded this nation, this team seems poised to change that fact. Panama is a tough team with some experienced players who have performed very well in CONCACAF and against the U.S. so they will not be intimated. Expect a tough match against a strong opponent.
Luis Tejada – The all-time leading scorer in Panamanian history who is both a former Fox Sports’ Goal of the Year winner and MVP of the 2005 Gold Cup will look to get on the score sheet versus the U.S.
Blas Perez – The F.C. Dallas striker is the second all-time leading scorer for Panama and a former member of the 2007 Gold Cup Best 11 will also look to find the back of the net.
Felipe Baloy – The captain of the team is the heart and soul of the fiery Panamanian team and a strong defender who leads the team by action and strong tackling.
Honduras, currently in the logjam of teams tied for third place (along with Costa Rica and the U.S.), will be looking to qualify for its second consecutive World Cup and third World Cup overall. Almost four months ago to the day, Honduras defeated the U.S. 2-1 in San Pedro Sula to kick off its Hexagonal campaign, despite an early Clint Dempsey goal. The U.S. was largely outplayed for most of that match, so expect the Hondurans to approach this second match full of confidence in their ability to get a result on the road versus the U.S.
Carlos Costly – This forward who plies his trade in the Greek Superleague is Honduras’ most consistent offensive threat and will look to use his big frame to disrupt the U.S. backline.
Wilson Palacios – The former Tottenham and current Stoke City midfielder is the engine in the midfield for Honduras and has been a stalwart for the team ever since his debut at the age of 18 a decade ago.
Victor Bernardez – The San Jose Earthquakes defender is a smart defender who represented Honduras in the 2010 World Cup and loves to get physical and muscle smaller forwards off the ball.
I think Klinsmann and the Americans will be hoping to earn at least seven points from the three crucial qualifying matches. The U.S. squad should enter the matches brimming with confidence after their impressive win over Germany and look to impose their will on their opponents. In the first of three matches, the USMNT will be eager to avenge their September 2012 loss (2-1) to Jamaica on their most recent visit to Kingston. I predict a 2-1 U.S. victory.
Four days after the Jamaica fixture, the U.S. makes the cross-country trip to Seattle, WA to face a pesky Panamanian squad, which has played them tough in recent matches. I believe this match will provide the stiffest test for the USMNT, and I predict a 1-1 draw. Finally, the U.S. faces Honduras, who defeated the Americans in their most recent encounter, after a much-needed week of rest. I expect the U.S. will close out their three-match fixture on a high note and make a statement in a 2-0 defeat of Honduras.