Less than a year away from the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the U.S. men’s national soccer team is halfway through the final round of qualifying — known as the Hexagonal for its six-team format — and things are looking quite rosy.
Although a spot in Brazil seems relatively secure — the top three teams automatically qualify and the fourth-place team goes into a playoff — there are still several questions lingering as the team looks to clinch its place at the World Cup and continue on to a successful run next summer.
Next up is a rematch against Honduras tonight in Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. The match is set for 7 p.m. local time (9 p.m. ET) and will be broadcast live on ESPN. The U.S. men will not play another home qualifier until Sept. 10 against Mexico in Columbus, Ohio.
The U.S. men have won their last two qualifying matches, with victories at Jamaica and against Panama, and the Americans also beat Germany in a friendly earlier this month.
Here are four things to watch for the U.S. men’s team for the second half of the Hexagonal:
CAN JOZY ALTIDORE KEEP IT UP?
Heading into this round of games, the 23-year-old striker was plagued by questions surrounding the huge discrepancy in form between his club and country. Although Altidore has scored 31 goals in all competitions with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the 2012-13 season, he hadn’t scored for the United States since November 2011, and it had been nearly two years since he scored in the run of play.
That all changed in the team’s friendly against Germany, and Altidore has now scored in three consecutive matches, including the game-winning goal against Panama on June 11. His continued good form will be vital for the United States in the Hexagonal and beyond.
As U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said during his news conference in Sandy: “I’ve said it often. He’s 23 years old. Give him time to grow, give him time to become that consistent player that we want all players to be one day.”
WILL BESLER AND GONZALEZ BE THE CENTER BACK DUO OF THE FUTURE?
Klinsmann has experimented with several pairings at center back during his time in charge, but he appears to be settling on a partnership of the LA Galaxy’s Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler of Sporting Kansas City. Although they are inexperienced at the international level, the MLS duo turned in a hugely impressive performance in a 0-0 draw at Mexico in March and has started every Hexagonal match since.
“I think Omar and Matt and players like them, there is so much they still have to learn and they know that they have to learn still a lot, but also for us, it’s an exciting learning curve to be with,” Klinsmann said. “This is what coaches want to do. We want to develop high-quality top players, and Matt and Omar have that talent to become real high-end center backs.”
HOW GOOD CAN MICHAEL BRADLEY BE?
The U.S. men’s team has had several top caliber players throughout its history, but it’s not a stretch to say that Michael Bradley could emerge as the greatest. It’s almost hard to believe that the central midfielder is still just 25, as he’s been a pro for nearly a decade now. Following his move to Italian power Roma last offseason, Bradley has been able to establish himself as a regular for one of Europe’s most storied clubs.
With the national team, Bradley continues to be extremely influential, dictating the pace of the game while making key plays on both ends of the field. He again showed the kind of offensive prowess he possesses against Panama, as his driving run though the center of midfield helped lead to the team’s first goal. He’s being hailed as possibly the best player in CONCACAF, and at his age, there’s still plenty of room to grow.
WHERE DOES LANDON DONOVAN FIT IN?
Following a self-imposed hiatus that saw him miss the team’s first three Hexagonal matches, 2000 U.S. Olympian Landon Donovan did not receive a call-up that many expected for Klinsmann’s current squad. The exclusion of the USA’s all-time leading scorer raised major questions about his future for the national team, as his relationship with Klinsmann has very clearly been strained by his decision to take a break from soccer. Donovan has been one of the most well-known players for the United States as he was the team’s star in the FIFA World Cup in 2010 in South Africa and is the national team’s all-time leader in goals (49) and assists (48).
With Graham Zusi solidifying a spot at right midfield, and Fabian Johnson looking promising at left midfield, there are real questions about whether Klinsmann sees Donovan as a part of his team’s future.
If Donovan can put together a run of good form for the LA Galaxy, and shows well with a B-squad in the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup, then Klinsmann could hand the midfielder a recall for the team’s Hexagonal matches in the fall. Although once viewed as a certainty, Donovan’s inclusion for any U.S. roster beyond this summer is now very much up in the air.