When the USMNT takes on Iceland on Sunday night at StubHub Center, they’ll be facing the darling of Euro 2016 qualifying. Iceland shocked Group A early in qualifying and against the odds managed to keep their run going to take a place in this summer’s tournament. That run included beating the Netherlands home and away.
Of course, this is January and outside of the FIFA calendar. In an out of window friendly setting, both teams will be missing key players and operating without the pressure of points on the line. Then again, the players on both teams will be trying to impress with the USMNT in this summer’s Copa Centenario and Iceland heading for France.
Iceland plays in Group F at Euro 2016, joining Portugal, Austria, and Hungary with as many as three teams advancing to the knockout round. That doesn’t stack the deck against a team like Iceland, but this is a team now dealing with new expectations after their qualifying performance.
For the USMNT, they’re once again addressing questions about their coach. Jurgen Klinsmann has addressed almost everything imaginable about a national team program at this point. That’s likely to continue until he puts together the squad capable of getting the results he needs. Without those wins, he’s in an uncomfortable position of having to justify his choices again and again. It’s a distraction the kind of thing a coach would expect his players to try and avoid.
Klinsmann’s insistence on keeping up a running conversation about American soccer players, the American league, and anything else he decides is worth addressing about the game certainly doesn’t help. Less of Klinsmann speaking publicly wouldn’t be the worst thing. Like with any team club or country, when the focus shifts this much to the coach it’s indicative of a large problem. How the US Soccer Federation chooses to deal with this is almost a separate issue, especially in a year when they’re hosting a high profile tournament.
Yes, the Copa Centenario will loom over everything American soccer for the first half of the year. Even with qualifiers on the schedule, it’s the special edition Copa America taking the spotlight. Will the American sports market respond as the organizers expect? Will all the teams show up at full strength and treat the tournament as a must win? Will this be another summer of soccer that pushes the pro game even further into the mainstream? Will this really be the biggest men’s soccer event in the United States since the ’94 World Cup?
All of these are open questions with the USMNT playing a key role in the eventual answers. That starts on Sunday afternoon with a warm-up friendly in Carson. Klinsmann and his squad no longer play games without pressure. Every one of them is now part of an overarching mandate on Klinsmann, the squad, and the focus of the USMNT. That’s not the healthiest situation for a national team, but it’s where the USMNT finds itself.
Since this is a January camp friendly, it’s difficult to talk about tactics and strategy. It’s even more difficult when part of the point of this camp is Olympic qualifying preparation for the U-23s. If Klinsmann is using this game and the next one as auditions to fill spots, he faces the same scenario as his predecessors. There has to be enough of a first team feel to the USMNT’s play to make any standout performances make sense. Playing well in isolation is one thing. Connecting with teammates who may never be on the field together in a game that counts is another.
With that in mind, the best thing that can come from Sunday’s friendly is nothing to add to the list of issues with the USMNT. No coaching controversies. No new mandates on who should play where based on 90 minutes of an out of window friendly. No hot takes that do little to add to that overwhelmingly big picture conversation. Maybe the USMNT is already past the point where that’s still possible. If so, that says as much about the Klinsmann era as the results on the field.