Four USMNT players ready to break out at Copa America -- if Klinsmann lets them

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Jurgen Klinsmann may have young answers to old questions right before his eyes. But will he play them at Copa America? Steve Davis explores.

A few years ago, a United States men's national team coach carefully assessed his roster and made some bold, difficult choices.

He went young, tossing aside comfortable convention. Never mind that known commodities, a.k.a. the older guys, owned qualities that were predictable, if nothing else.  And never mind that younger fellows, the bright and shiny things of player pools, can be pretty to look at but sometimes dim at business time.

This manager made the hard choice; the scene was the 2002 World Cup.

Bruce Arena showed trust. His young players delivered.

Thanks to that moment, that critical turning point in U.S. Soccer, Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Pablo Mastroeni and John O’Brien ensconced themselves in U.S. World Cup lore. The breakout stars of the era, they created bedrock, a foundation for years of national teams ahead.

Are we upon another such moment now? Is the next generation here and ready to deliver? Because it seems so.

Who is ready to shine?

Bobby Wood, Christian Pulisic, Darlington Nagbe and Gyasi Zardes: please step forward. It’s your time, guys! You are the potential breakout stars of the summer of 2016. We’re ready to write words of praise. The fans are saving pennies to buy your U.S. jerseys.

There is where we should issue the usual disclaimer about friendlies – a bit of a buzz kill, I know. A lot of this is based on two meaningless tune-ups, one against a good South American team (Ecuador) and one against an opponent likely to be overmatched in the upcoming Copa America Centenario (Bolivia). Always remember: no one proves themselves worthy of meaningful, quality international minutes through performance in meaningless friendlies. But! … They can certainly demonstrate that they aren’t up for the job. Between Wood, Pulisic, Nagbe and Zardes, we didn’t see a hint of that over the last week.

Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Rohman-USA TODAY Sports

These guys aren’t superheroes, of course. We are not talking about Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller, Marco Reus, Toni Kroos and Mario Goetze here. That was Germany’s flash flood of golden attackers, who generally began arriving around the time of the 2010 World Cup. But we are talking about a highly stable core of talented young go-getters, potentially about a capable attacking platform for years to come – and a bunch that could possibly birth one or two truly marquee stars, a la Donovan.

The bigger point here is that the United States national team looks like a team ready to be made over.  All the ingredients are there – assuming manager Jurgen Klinsmann will just stay out of his own way.

This potential “turning over” starts with these younger stars. Around the team, there are other areas where a “turning over” may be happening already. For instance, it’s Brad Guzan’s job to lose in goal now, as trusty Tim Howard moves closer to the winter of his amazing career. And in the midfield, Alejandro Bedoya’s influence and value keeps increasing, putting his paw prints all over the key moments of these two U.S. friendlies.

Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

But none of this is a surprise. We already knew that Guzan, a four-year Premier League starter, is a quality goalkeeper – never mind the just-complete season of club-wide misery around Villa Park. And we already knew Bedoya was a quality midfielder, not to mention a versatile one who appears ready to leave the nest at Nantes for bigger and better elsewhere.

We can also talk about John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, two young defenders who have just taken the proverbial “next step,” coming off swell seasons abroad. But they have 55 U.S. Caps between them, and they’ve already been to a World Cup.  

How the pieces fit

In terms of gaining deeper knowledge of the U.S. player pool, this summer is starting to look like it belongs to Wood, Nagbe, Pulisic and Zardes.

Nagbe and Pulisic are the newest of the relative newbies. Nagbe is no kid, of course; he’s 25 years old. But Nagbe made his first U.S. appearance only last fall – a beautiful and memorable moment for a quiet guy, who was emotional in a long-dreamed-for moment of representing his adopted homeland.

We’ve always known Nagbe as a specialist in safe possession. The nitpick on the Portland Timbers’ silky-smooth midfielder has been in modest final production; 24 goals and 23 assists in 160 starts certainly isn’t bad, but those numbers aren’t jaw-droppers, either. Then again, perhaps that’s his role with the Timbers – to be safe.

Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

Under Klinsmann, the United States national team’s possession has been, well, let’s go with a “work in progress.”  If Michael Bradley sits deep, they need safe passers and trappers to move possession into guys who can be difference makers. That’s Nagbe.

And perhaps this is where Nagbe can further elevate his game. He certainly has the technical tools and the vision to do more – maybe Klinsmann can summon a bit more. Perhaps it’s just a matter of asking him to do more.

Meanwhile, Pulisic may as well be wearing a t-shirt, one of those funny, ironic numbers, that says “Breakout Star.” The old cliché that says “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” has never applied more. Yes, we should all temper expectations of a 17-year-old. Then again, he demonstrated again and again at Dortmund that he was no fish out of Bundesliga water. And while the sample is small (three caps) there has been nothing in his national team deliverables to suggest any “awe” or “overwhelmed.”

He was scrappy in the right spots, clever in the right spots and clinical in the right spots. He worked off the ball, read the runs and calmly finished. As the Dortmund man found goal on Saturday, the final tally in a 4-0 win over Bolivia in Kansas City, he became the United States’ youngest scorer of the modern era.

If either Wood or Zardes (or both, but let’s not be greedy here) can rise this summer, serendipity is playing a big role. They have this chance because of Jozy Altidore’s latest incidence of hamstring hindrance. Of course, they’ll have a better chance if Klinsmann will be bold here and begin minimizing Clint Dempsey’s role. That seems increasingly wise as the Sounders’ man spends too much time now looking for fouls, and increasingly less time looking for ways to stay on his feet and influence the game in the run of play.

Zardes had two goals against Bolivia, helping atone for a far less memorable night against Ecuador. Wood assisted on one of those goals, his relentless work rate paying dividends.

For all the criticism aimed Klinsmann’s way over the last two years, this is undoubtedly where he excels: in providing young players with maximum doses of comfort and confidence. Wood, in particular, has struggled at times to influence U.S. matches. Klinsmann’s trust never wavered, and now Wood seems on course, a move to a bigger club (Hamburg) as evidence.

“With a young player, they can only grow if they play,” Klinsmann said on Saturday. “You've got to give young players the chance, the minutes, and also give them the OK that they can make mistakes. They learn out of the mistakes very quickly, and this is what Bobby did.”

Klinsmann mentioned a previous match against Ecuador a year and a half back, where Wood didn’t deliver in front of goal. “Well now he's probably right there, of three chances at least one he puts in. So this is a great learning curve, and it obviously is fun for us to watch because we need fresh, young players breaking through, but we're not giving them that for free. They have to work hard for it.”

And they need to be trusted. Not just in friendlies, but in the coming Copa America. It’s a big moment for the young men – but for Klinsmann, too. And maybe for building a national team platform that will reap rewards beyond.

MLS This and That

After careful scrutiny of a long MLS Round 13, I’d love to see …

A little more of this: The Rapids. The Western Conference leaders continue to set the standard defensively – and they will only get better upon Tim Howard’s arrival. Plus, take note: performances from second-year center back Axel Sjoberg keep getting better and better.

… and a little less of that: Goalkeeping woes in L.A. Man, how many times are they going to pay for failing to keep Jaime Penedo financially happy? Dan Kennedy, presumed to be the answer, hasn’t done enough to keep the job ahead of Brian Rowe. And Rowe, well, allowing Didier Drogba’s late, late free kick to slip through his mitts was as embarrassing as it was costly. (Oh, by the way, it was Steven Gerrard’s ill-advised pass, when he should have been safer in possession, that started the entire mess.)

A little more of this: The East clobbering the West; the teams from the right coast-ish went unbeaten (4-0-2) against Western Conference sides. It’s about time, too; the West has been the better conference generally for some time.

… and a little less of that: Let’s hope the current drain on rosters, brought about as a few of the money men join their national teams for Copa America and the European Championship, doesn’t create too many matches like the one Saturday in San Jose. FC Dallas and the San Jose Earthquakes tried to attack; they just weren’t very good at it. In their scoreless draw, the teams combined for only 11 shots, just four on target.

A little more of this: Smart personnel moves like the trade that brought Aurelien Collin to New York. He was increasingly marginalized in Orlando, where young and talented Tommy Redding was ready for a bigger role. Off Collin went to New York; the Red Bulls are 3-1-1 since the Frenchman’s arrival. Yes, he’s a bit expensive … but Jesse Marsch’s team needed a veteran leader along the back line in the very worst way.

… and a little less of that: Things were just humming along, happy as they could be at Red Bull Arena on Saturday, when Bradley Wright-Phillips scored a hat trick in 27 minutes. The only thing that could have potentially allowed Toronto back into the match was something incredibly stupid. Well, there it was! Gonzalo Veron’s two-footed stomp, hideous and needless, left his team a man down for more than a half. It’s harder and harder to see how Veron adds any value to the Red Bulls.

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Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.