US national team faces important questions in Copa America training camp

MIAMI – Calling this week’s training stint in Miami a “transition camp” was probably a bit more on the nose than Jurgen Klinsmann and the US national team would’ve liked.

Klinsmann and a smattering of USMNT players began a four-day pre-Copa América Centenario training camp at Barry University on Monday. Klinsmann will announce his final 23-man roster for the tournament on Friday, then take his Miami skeleton crew to Puerto Rico for a friendly on Sunday before meeting up with the USA’s MLS contingent to begin pre-Copa prep in earnest next week in Dallas.

The stated goal of the Miami camp was to bridge the gap between the end of league seasons and the start of the Copa on June 3 for USMNT players based in Europe and Mexico. Monday’s news that Jozy Altidore will miss the tournament after suffering a hamstring injury over the weekend put a new light on the South Florida sessions, however.

Klinsmann now has to figure out how to transition from Altidore (the only true target striker on the US’s preliminary roster) to a new crop of strikers, all while answering a couple of other significant questions looming over his group.

It won’t be easy – but it will be interesting. Here are a few things I’ll be closely looking at while covering the team this week in Miami:

How will the US replace Jozy Altidore?

Toronto FC announced on Monday that Altidore will miss six-to-eight weeks after suffering a Grade 2 hamstring strain on Saturday against Vancouver, practically putting him out of the Copa.

It’s brutal news for Altidore, who missed nearly the entire 2014 World Cup after pulling his hamstring in the opener against Ghana and was sent home from last summer’s Gold Cup following the group stage due to what Klinsmann labeled fitness concerns coming off a hamstring injury he suffered earlier in the year.

It’s also a huge blow for the USMNT, who don’t have another striker on their 40-man preliminary Copa roster who can replace Altidore’s ability to hold up play and serve as a target striker.

Klinsmann, of course, has dealt with this problem before. He didn’t have a true backup for Altidore on the roster in 2014, and was forced to switch to a lone striker formation with Clint Dempsey up top for the duration of the USMNT’s stay in Brazil. He had a bit more flexibility last summer, and paired Dempsey with Aron Johannson up top during the USA’s run to the Gold Cup semifinal.

Things will no doubt be different this summer, with Johannson not on the roster after an injury-plagued year with Werder Bremen and a slew of young forwards having emerged as viable candidates up top.

Recent Hamburg signing Bobby Wood, coming off of a wonderful year for Union Berlin in the German second division, is probably the leading candidate to replace Altidore, though the LA Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes and Seattle Sounders’ Jordan Morris can also fill-in in the striker role. They all play the position a bit differently than Altidore, who, as we’ve seen this year for TFC, can bring plenty of positives regardless of whether or not he’s scoring.

Dempsey also lingers. He’s not at his best when playing as a No. 9, but Klinsmann has used him there before. Assuming those two are in a decent place, we could see Deuce there again this summer.

Of those players, Wood is the only one in Miami. He’ll have more time to impress Klinsmann than any of his cohorts at forward, and my money is on seeing him at striker in the Copa opener against Colombia.

Where will DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson play?

Fabian Johnson is perhaps the best US field player at the moment, coming off a sparkling season that saw him finish with six league goals and a pair of Champions League strikes for fourth-place Bundesliga finishers Borussia Monchengladbach. He’s been mentioned alongside Bayern Munich’s Brazilian international Douglas Costa and Borussia Dortmund’s German international Marco Reus as the best left winger in Germany, heady praise for any player.

Yedlin didn’t quite hit those heights, but the Sounders academy product did establish himself as a full-fledged English Premier League regular. He started Sunderland’s final 13 matches of the year at right back, regularly impressing and helping the Black Cats avoid the drop – all after manager Sam Allardyce publicly questioned whether he had the experience to handle a relegation battle in February.

While they had two of the more impressive seasons of any player in the US pool, it’s no sure thing that Johnson and Yedlin will play the same position as they do with their club this summer. Klinsmann has traditionally used Yedlin, the right back, as a right winger and played Johnson, the left winger, at left back or even right back.

Klinsmann has gotten away from that recently, however, starting Yedlin on the wing in the USA’s loss at Guatemala on March 25 before moving him back to fullback for the 4-0 home win against los Chapines four days later. Johnson missed the Guatemala matches due to injury, but started at left wing in the first two qualifiers of the round against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and at Trinidad and Tobago.

We’ll see if Klinsmann offers any glimpses of where he’ll play either player in Miami (training sessions are only open to media for a limited amount of time), but it’s something I’ll have my eye on.

Will Klinsmann settle on a center back pairing?

For the first time since last September’s friendly against Peru and for what I believe to be just the second time ever, Klinsmann has John Brooks and Geoff Cameron in camp at the same time. (At least he will on Wednesday, that is. Brooks was given Tuesday off following the conclusion of the Bundesliga season, and will arrive in Miami later on Tuesday afternoon. He's scheduled to be at practice on Wednesday.)

Like Yedlin and Johnson, Brooks and Cameron are coming off strong European campaigns, playing vital roles at center back for Hertha Berlin and Stoke City, respectively. They’re two of the team’s best options at center back heading into this summer, but – apart from a glorious 45 minutes against Ghana in 2014 – they’ve never played together with the USMNT.

That should change this week. Other center back options Ventura Alvarado, Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum and Omar Gonzalez are all either with their MLS teams or off competing in the Liga MX playoffs, meaning Brooks and Cameron should get plenty of reps together in Miami. Whether or not that time leads to anything fruitful remains to be seen, but it’ll only be positive for two of the USMNT’s best center backs to get some extended run together – even if it’s only in practice.

How will the goalkeeping situation play out?

Since Tim Howard returned from his self-imposed international sabbatical last fall, Klinsmann has rotated him and Brad Guzan in net. They’ve both started two World Cup qualifiers, splitting the duties against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago last November and each making one start in the two matches against Guatemala in March.

Klinsmann didn’t offer any hints on Tuesday as to how he plans on deploying his two experienced ‘keepers this summer, though he did tell reporters that he’s planning on sitting down with both of them “in the next couple of days,” at which point he’ll issue another public update.

Howard, who will join the Colorado Rapids following the tournament, has been the mainstay in net for the US for the better part of the last decade, appearing for the country at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Guzan was the starter when Howard took a year-long USMNT break following the 2014 tournament, starting all six of the country’s games at the 2015 Gold Cup and the CONCACAF Cup.

We’ll see how Klinsmann deploys them – and if he names promising 20-year-old ‘keeper Ethan Horvath to the final roster – in the next couple of days.

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