USA vs. Korea Republic
Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 5 pm ET
StubHub Center, Carson, Calif.
Watch on ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas
January friendlies in Southern California are long-running tradition for the US national team, but Saturday's friendly against South Korea holds an entirely different significance as the opening test of an epochal year which climaxes with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil this summer.
An MLS-heavy group will be eager to impress head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is making his final evaluations before naming his World Cup roster in May. And in a fitting reflection of the elevated stakes, StubHub Center will welcome a sellout crowd for one of the best-attended January friendlies in USMNT history.
The Yanks are 1-3-2 all-time against Saturday's adversaries, who are referred to as the Korea Republic by FIFA, with the most recent – and most memorable – meeting taking place during the group phase of the 2002 World Cup (at right). The two sides played to a tense 1-1 draw on June 10 in Daegu as Clint Mathis hammered home a clinical finish and Brad Friedel saved a penalty kick to steer the USMNT through a daunting clash with the host nation.
The USA's only win of the series came in the opening group match of the 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup, in which Korea were an invited participant. DaMarcus Beasley netted his first international goal in the 2-1 triumph at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
With just months to go before Klinsmann's final roster cuts, many players in the current camp are desperate to distinguish themselves and work their way into a plane ticket to Brazil. But for others, like Seattle Sounders Homegrown DeAndre Yedlin, Real Salt Lake youngster Luis Gil, Portland Timbers fullback Michael Harrington and late bloomer Mike Magee (at right) of the Chicago Fire, this month has brought a first taste of life with the senior team.
All four will seek their USMNT debuts this weekend and while they face an uphill battle to make the World Cup squad, there is a precedent of late-arriving standouts in past editions of the tournament. Klinsmann has squeezed further utility out of this month's exercises by staging most of the camp at his planned home base in São Paulo, Brazil, providing a useful dry run for players as well as staff members.
SOUTH KOREA OUTLOOK
Brazil 2014 marks an impressive eighth straight World Cup trip (and ninth overall) for the Taegeuk Warriors, but they find themselves at something of a low ebb with just months to go. According to the FIFA World Rankings they are one of the lowest-ranked teams in the tournament and last year's performances were uninspiring enough to prompt the resignation of head coach Choi Kang-Hee even after he'd booked qualification.
But there's optimism under new man Hong Myung-Bo, a national icon during his playing days (which included a stint with LA Galaxy) who impressed many by leading South Korea's Olympic team to the bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics.
In stark contrast to the USA's vicious group-stage draw, the Tigers have been placed in a less daunting Group H alongside Belgium, Russia and Algeria. Like Klinsmann, Hong has traveled to California with an almost entirely domestic-based squad and the group's inexperience was palpable in Wednesday's 4-0 thumping at the hands of Mexico in San Antonio.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Mike Magee
The 2013 MLS MVP and one of the best attacking players in the league over the past several years has finally been called in from the international wilderness. But has he done enough in training camp to earn extended minutes on Saturday? And if so, will he seize the moment as the clock ticks down to the World Cup?
South Korea – Kim Shin-Wook
The 25-year-old striker (at right) scored the Tigers' only goals in their past three matches, a game-winner in last week's 1-0 win over Costa Rica and the consolation strike in November's 2-1 loss to Russia in the United Arab Emirates. At 6-foot-4, his towering frame presents an inviting target in the box and he's shown predatory instincts that should keep the USMNT backline on their toes.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (7): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), Michael Harrington (Portland Timbers), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), DeAndre Yedlin (Seattle Sounders FC)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Eric Alexander (New York Red Bulls), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg/Norway), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City), Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake), Dax McCarty (New York Red Bulls), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (4): Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Eddie Johnson (D.C. United), Mike Magee (Chicago Fire), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
(*all clubs K-League unless otherwise noted)
GOALKEEPERS: Kim Seung-Gyu (Ulsan Hyundai), Jung Sung-Ryong (Suwon Bluewings), Lee Bum-Young (Busan IPark)
DEFENDERS: Kim Kee-Hee (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Kang Min-Soo (Ulsan Hyundai), Kim Jin-Su (Albirex Niigata/Japan), Jin-Po Park (Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma), Ko Yo-Han (FC Seoul), Kim Min-Woo (Sagan Tosu/Japan), Kim Dae-Ho (Pohang Steelers), Park Jin-Po (Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma), Kim Ju-Young (FC Seoul), Ji-Nam Lee (Daegu FC)
MIDFIELDERS: Park Jong-Woo (Busan IPark), Yeom Ki-Hun (Suwon Bluewings), Lee Myung-Joo (Pohang Steelers), Kim Tae-Hwan (Seongnam Ilhwa Chunma), Lee Seung-Gi (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Yeom Ki-Hun (Suwon Bluewings), Lee Ho (Sangju Sangmu Phoenix), Song Jin-Hyung (Jeju United), Yeom Ki-Hun (Suwon Bluewings)
FORWARDS: Lee Keun-Ho (Sangju Sangmu), Kim Shin-Wook (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Yong-Jae (Red Star/France)