U.S.'s best chance at rebound in 2016 will come at Copa America Centenario
As post-World Cup years go, 2015 will not rank high for the U.S. men's national team. Sure, there were the impressive friendly wins over the Netherlands and Germany, but when it came to games that mattered in the Gold Cup semifinals and in the CONCACAF Cup, the Americans' play did little to create optimism.
Fortunately for the U.S., the international game pushes inexorably forward. Here are a few storylines to follow for 2016.
1. Can Klinsmann and the U.S. rebound?
Granted, rebound is a relative term. The Americans' record in 2015 was 10-6-4, and it's not unusual for a national team to encounter a few hiccups as older players move out and new performers enter. But 2015 witnessed the most sustained period of stagnation -- and even regression in contrast to the 2014 World Cup -- the U.S. team has encountered in some time. No part of the team, from back to front, was immune. Worse yet, the Americans' unity and togetherness -- long the foundation upon which the team's success was built -- appeared to become frayed at times.
Yet there don't appear to be many obstacles standing in the team's way toward an improved 2016. Two World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in March could see the U.S. all but lock up advancement to the final round Hexagonal. That would allow manager Jurgen Klinsmann the chance to experiment a little more during the final two games at home to Trinidad and Tobago and away to St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Then again, the focus will be as much on how the U.S. plays as the results the team gets.
Of course, the biggest test of the year will be ...
2. The Copa America Centenario
The U.S. is a team that needs quality games wherever it can find them, and if those games happen to come in the context of a tournament, even better. So with the Confederations Cup no longer a possibility thanks to the CONCACAF Cup defeat, this summer's Copa America offers Klinsmann the chance to obtain a slew of useful data points about his team that he wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
Granted, the corruption that has been uncovered in relation to the tournament leaves a bad taste to a certain extent. But assuming the big South American stars decide to play in the tournament -- yes, it's an official event for which players are obliged to be released, but club realities have often dictated otherwise -- the event figures to be both exciting and competitive. For that reason, the U.S. and Klinsmann will be focused on making the most of what is a unique opportunity.
3. What's next for Clint Dempsey?
For much of the year, the play of Dempsey was the primary reason the U.S. was able to get results, even when it wasn't playing well. This was especially true in the Gold Cup. Then came a subdued performance by Dempsey against Mexico in October's CONCACAF Cup, and that was followed by his omission for the two World Cup qualifiers later that month.
What this means going forward remains unclear. The end of the Dempsey era is certainly approaching. The Seattle Sounders attacker will be 35 by the time the next World Cup rolls around, and Klinsmann's willingness to jettison veterans in favor of younger players is well documented. Without question, the U.S. manager's search for creative forces is ongoing, but it still seems too early to cut the cord with Dempsey. His ruthlessness in front of goal was sorely missed in the 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw against Trinidad and Tobago. At minimum, his skills will be needed in 2016, and probably beyond.
4. Will the next wave step up?
Another reason for Dempsey's continued inclusion is the stop-start progression of the next generation of players, especially on the attacking side of the ball. Gyasi Zardes made progress in 2015, and became a frequent presence in the lineup but lacks consistency. Bobby Wood popped up for some critical goals in 2015, but how he'll do in an expanded role remains an open question. Jordan Morris has shown immense promise but is still an amateur player, at least for the moment.
These players also have very different skill sets compared to Dempsey, which raises the question of where the creativity in the side will come from. Landon Donovan is retired. Benny Feilhaber remains exiled. Michael Bradley has soldiered on in a creative role that doesn't seem to suit him entirely. He did have a career-high six assists in 2015, but he can't shoulder the creative burden by himself. Suddenly relying on a Sebastian Lletget or a Lee Nguyen seems an abrupt transition as well, although we'll see what Darlington Nagbe delivers in the coming year. It's an issue with plenty of moving parts and no easy answers.
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The defensive side of the ball looked more settled toward the end of 2015. Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron did plenty to stabilize a backline that looked wobbly during the Gold Cup thanks to Klinsmann's perseverance with younger elements like Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks. But Klinsmann remains a big fan of both players, meaning they'll probably earn more minutes in 2016.
5. Can the U-23s qualify for the Olympics?
OK, so technically the Under-23s are outside the realm of the full national team, but the side's ability to qualify for the 2016 Olympics will bear watching. After finishing a highly disappointing third in CONCACAF qualifying, Andi Herzog's side is faced with a home-and-away playoff against Colombia to make it to Rio, a difficult task indeed.
Just what would a failure to qualify represent? It would further tarnish Klinsmann's already-damaged reputation. That said, it would be far from a fatal setback for both manager and the full national team. It's worth reiterating that the bulk of player development takes place at club level. And looked at another way, Mexico's gold medal triumph in 2012 didn't prove to be much of an inoculation from World Cup qualifying struggles. But the tournament is still a chance for players to earn international experience, and failing to qualify for the Olympics for the second time running would further slow the growth process for the players involved.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.