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USA vs. Iceland: Three players to watch as USMNT kicks off 2016

Brian Straus says Matt Besler, Darlington Nagbe and Jozy Altidore are the ones to keep an eye on as Jurgen Klinsmann's squad returns to action.

The U.S. national team is nearly three weeks into a January camp that appears to be the most low-key gathering of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. Time, plus four points from a pair of November World Cup qualifiers, have eased a significant portion of the pressure that built up through a frustrating summer and fall.

The games that matter are two months away, and Klinsmann’s decision to split the camp between senior players and members of the U-23 team aiming to qualify for this summer’s Olympics removes a bit of tactical intrigue. Some partnerships or chemistry may take root out at StubHub Center, but for the most part, this month is about personal form and development. It’s about helping players through the long MLS offseason (most will go around four months without competitive games) and giving them a jump-start on the year ahead.

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It’s been relatively quiet so far. Most of the recent news has concerned players who left early (Matt Miazga), arrived late (Jordan Morris) or weren’t invited at all (Benny Feilhaber). Some, like Clint Dempsey, were given the option of skipping camp altogether—an approach that might have created external controversy or internal consternation in years past. And Klinsmann has eased his foot off the gas pedal, giving his players far more freedom than usual.

He told ESPN that locals like Gyasi Zardes and Jermaine Jones have the option to stay at home while out-of-towners can bring in their families or opt for a different hotel.

"They already have the schedule for the month, but we just confirm it day by day," Klinsmann said. "The rest is, 'You are your own boss. You're driving it. If you want more treatment here, stay longer here. If you want to run out and do something else, it's fine. It's your camp. It's for you.' I think that helped a lot. It keeps camp really, really light and positive.”

Camp will conclude with home friendlies against an Iceland squad playing without many of the stars who helped seal European Championship qualification (Sunday, 3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN2, UniMas) and Canada (Feb. 5, 10:15 p.m. ET; FS1, UniMas). Klinsmann always prefers a positive result, but the nature of his roster, which now features nine U-23 players, means he also may prioritize fielding partnerships or combinations of players he’ll want to use when the games matter in late March.

For example, it may make sense to pair U-23 forwards Morris and Jerome Kiesewetter up top. They may be a few years away from starting together for the senior team, but the challenge presented by Colombia in the upcoming home-and-home Olympic qualifying playoff is more pressing than winning a low-profile friendly.

Advancing to Rio is important, but Klinsmann ultimately will be judged by the success or failure of the senior squad. A pair of World Cup qualifiers against Guatemala in late March and then the Copa América Centenario in June will indicate whether 2015 was a hiccup or the start of a more troubling trend. And there are several men now training out in Southern California whose 2016 form will play a significant role in determining that course. For them, the pressure and opportunity is a bit greater.

Here’s a look at three such players:


Defender Matt Besler

January camp was a bit more demanding one year ago, and Klinsmann’s public complaints about the offseason fitness of several unnamed players received return fire from Besler and his Sporting Kansas City coach, Peter Vermes. Besler, a World Cup starter, wasn’t in Klinsmann’s first 11 for another eight months.

Klinsmann’s reliance on Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks at the Gold Cup proved to be the manager’s biggest misstep of 2015, and Besler’s strong season in MLS paved the way for a return. He started the Confederations Cup playoff loss to Mexico in October and then the ensuing qualifiers. Now, the 28-year-old is back in camp and in position to get a head start on establishing himself as an anchor in a unit that’s seen far too much upheaval in recent months.

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Geoff Cameron is nursing an ankle injury back with Stoke City, Omar Gonzalez (who hasn’t played for the U.S. in nearly five months) has started well with Pachuca while Brooks, Alvarado, Miazga, Michael Orozco and others knock on the door.

Where Besler may have been fatigued or even defiant one year ago, he now seems eager to assume a leadership role.

“You come in for your first January camp and there’s a lot of focus around yourself,” he told U.S. Soccer. “One you’ve been around for a few years, I think there’s different responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is helping others. This is a great opportunity to be a leader in this camp—me specifically. There’s a ton of young defenders here. [I’m going to] just try to help get everybody on the same page as quickly as possible and help them have an enjoyable experience.”

Getting everyone on the same page is what good center backs do, and in this January camp Besler now has the opportunity to make a different sort of lasting impression on Klinsmann.


Midfielder Darlington Nagbe

The national team’s lack of a bona fide midfield playmaker has had a significant domino effect. It’s forced an enormous amount onto Michael Bradley’s plate, isolated Jozy Altidore and left the Americans struggling to hold the ball, dictate terms or play the proactive, attacking soccer Klinsmann advocated.

Nagbe’s much-discussed shift inside during the Portland Timbers’ stretch run has thrust him into that conversation.

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The 25-year-old, who was born in Liberia and moved to Ohio when he was 11, is quick, creative and deft on the dribble. His impact was obvious as the Timbers surged toward their first league championship and resulted in his first two caps in November. If he gets comfortable in a central role for the U.S., it would allow Bradley to focus on organization and tempo or to return to his original position as a defensive midfielder.

Either way, Nagbe’s potential emergence would add an element the Americans have been missing while helping to define roles more clearly throughout the rest of the side.

It also would require a significant shift in tactics and chemistry in a short period of time. If Klinsmann is going to try it in the qualifiers or Copa América, there needs to be hints that it’s working during the upcoming friendlies.

“I think Darlington, especially in the attacking third, can really make a difference because he's calm on the ball. He has great vision. He sees runs of players, and he knows how to connect all the way around. [He’s] very complete in what he's doing,” the coach told reporters.


Forward Jozy Altidore

The past two years have been a tough stretch for Altidore, who’s not young anymore. At 26, he’s closing in on 100 caps (89) and now is embarking on his 10th year as a senior international. It’s no longer about potential for the Toronto FC striker. It’s about performance.

And Altidore seems to know it. After enduring injury-plagued years that saw him miss most of the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Gold Cup and included a brutal stretch at Sunderland and a season of transition at TFC, he was eager to get started this winter. So he arrived in California a week early to commence training.

“I just wanted to come in and start moving a little bit early…getting ready for the year thinking about all the competitions coming up, the MLS season and some fine games that you circle on the calendar,” Altidore told U.S. Soccer. “The last couple of years have been rough, so I just want to stay healthy, stay fit and try to help my team the best that I can.”

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He managed six goals in 13 U.S. appearances last year, including a pair in the November qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and scored 13 times in 26 MLS appearances for Toronto. He’s looking for more this year. Dempsey hopes to stick around long enough to play in the Copa América and break Landon Donovan’s scoring record (Deuce is nine goals behind), while Morris, Bobby Wood and others remain prospects.

The mantle of ‘go-to’ finisher is Altidore’s to seize.

“He has big goals,” Klinsmann said. “He’s dreaming about the next World Cup. He’s dreaming about the Copa América. .He’s dreaming about winning the MLS Cup with Toronto. He wants to put his stamp on the national team program. And so over the years in his maturing process. He’s gathered all that information from the other older players, and now he becomes one of those as well. So he now wants to make sure that he makes the right decisions. So we see a Jozy now coming in prepared. He’s eager to take advantage of every training session, not wasting a minute on the field, preparing himself the best way possible for the next day.”