U.S. youth vs. veterans a welcome problem for Jurgen Klinsmann
FRISCO, Texas -- When the U.S. lineup was released about an hour before Wednesday's kickoff of a Copa America tuneup against Ecuador, the American soccer Twittersphere was aghast at the age of Jurgen Klinsmann's starting XI.
By the time the night had ended, though, with a 1-0 victory by the Americans on Darlington Nagbe's 90th-minute strike, social media was awash in praise of the national team's next generation.
Of the seven starters in suburban Dallas, seven will be on the wrong side of 30 when the next World Cup (assuming the U.S. qualifies for their eight consecutive tournament, of course) rolls around in two years.
Several, including 2014 soldiers Kyle Beckerman, Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones, will be closer to 40 than 30 by then. Perhaps one of them defies Father Time and makes it all the way to Russia. But the odds are clearly not in their favor. So why not, fans quite reasonably ask, just go with younger players like Nabge, striker Bobby Wood and 17-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic -- who was beyond impressive off the bench in Texas -- right now?
Klinsmann's answer, basically, is that they have to earn it.
"It's a long process," the coach said after Wednesday's win. "You change the face of the team one step at a time,"
But Wednesday, the youngsters took a giant leap forward and American supporters might find that the changing of the guard happens when the Copa America Centernario begins.
Based on his pedigree with Borussia Dortmund and the performance against Ecuador, it would surprise nobody if Pulisic spelled the earnest, athletic but concrete-footed Gyasi Zardes, himself just 24, on the left wing sooner rather than later.
Wood, 23, is already projected to start this June in place of injured target man Jozy Altidore. While Wood was rested in the first half, along with Alejandro Bedoya, as Klinsmann rotated his squad before Saturday's final tune-up, the coach believes the new Hamburg man is ready to take on a leading role.
"Bobby has grown tremendously over the last year," Klinsmann said after the final whistle at Toyota Stadium. "You see that now. He's physically on a different level. He doesn't lose the ball. It's absolutely a huge jump in personality."
As for the 25-year-old Nagbe, the Liberia-born, Ohio-raised playmaker has now earned six caps since acquiring U.S. citizenship last September, and he continues to adjust to the unforgiving international level.
Others are improving, too. After his first full season in the Premier League, right back DeAndre Yedlin looks like a grizzled veteran at the ripe old age of 22. Third-string keeper Ethan Horvath, who will join the team in California ahead of the U.S.'s opener against Colombia, is at 20 the best American backstop prospect to come along in a decade. More young players could break through over the next two years, too.
But first, there is the small matter of succeeding at this Copa on home soil, hence the reasons the vets are still around.
The emergence of new and capable options could give Klinsmann added flexibility, however. The coach went with an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation against Ecuador, one he admitted we could see more of next month.
"The 4-3-3 is definitely an option that we'll entertain," Klinsmann said, noting that the set easily morphs into a more defensive 4-5-1 when needed. "It gives us a lot more compactness throughout the midfield." It worked like a charm on Wednesday, as the Americans didn't allow the high-powered visitors more than a couple of half-chances that they failed to convert.
"Defensively it was a very good game," Klinsmann said.
"I thought in the second half we knocked the ball around really well and maybe could've scored one or two more," said goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who earned his first clean sheet since being named the Copa starter last week.
That was largely down the introduction of the kids, of course. Suddenly, they are locked in a fierce battle with the vets for lineup spots, with Saturday's friendly against Bolivia in Kansas City still to come. How it plays out will be fascinating to watch.
"The established ones, they're not giving in either," Klinsmann said. "This," he continued, "is what you want to have."
-- Klinsmann said that Nagbe continues to become a more complete player at the highest level. "Darlington understands this moment in time," the coach said. "He knows that he's a couple of years late because he couldn't play with us before. You want him to feel comfortable and that he's right away part of the group.
"But now you want to also tell him, 'Listen, you have to make an impression,'" Klinsmann said. "'You have to play both ways. You have to grind it out defensively and win balls.' He has tremendous talent with the ball at his feet going forward. That's what we enjoy in MLS every weekend. But on the international side it's both ways. That's what we're working on and he's getting better and better."
-- Guzan said that facing Ecuador -- FIFA's 12th-ranked team and the co-leader in South American World Cup qualifying -- offered ideal preparation for Copa America.
"Tonight was a taste of what we're going to probably experience in the next couple weeks, so it was good to not only get a clean sheet but I think it was really important to get a result," he said. "We know it's going to be a difficult tournament. We're going up against really difficult teams and good players."
-- Almost an hour after his last-minute heroics, Nagbe could still barely wipe the smile off his face as he chatted with reporters.
"It felt great," Nagbe said. "I've been wanting my first goal to come, so in a big game like this before the Copa America against a good team, I was happy it was in this game."
-- Guzan gushed about the performance of his defenders in general and center back John Brooks in particular. "I thought the guys in front of me did a really good job blocking shots, blocking crosses, making a last-minute tackles," he said. "There was one, especially in the first half, where John gets down and puts it out for a corner. Those are important moments in games."
-- Wednesday's match wasn't played at the breakneck pace expected when the games that count get underway. Guzan suggested the humidity and heat -- it was 84 degrees at kickoff -- had a lot to do with it. "It was quite warm out there," he said. "You could tell that the tempo of the game wasn't as fast as [people] would've liked."
"But it's all part of managing games and trying to get results," he added. "It's important to get results when we play these games. Whenever we step on the field, we want to try to put together a good performance and for the most part I thought we did."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.