As the U.S. Men’s National Team convened in Amsterdam to begin preparations for friendlies against the Netherlands and Germany, the buzzword was simple: Opportunity.
With attacking regulars Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey absent from the upcoming friendlies, Aron Johannsson, Gyasi Zardes, Juan Agudelo, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood have an excellent opportunity to shine according to U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“You can play against Holland, you can play against Germany, and now you have to understand that you better use it. You better make the best out of it and prove to the coaches and the fans that you deserve to be a part of the program moving forward.”
Jordan Morris joined the MNT in camp in Amsterdam after competing with the U.S. U-23s at the Toulon Tournament in France, where he scored a goal and assisted another in three games worth of action.
As the forward fivesome looks across at its opposite numbers on Friday, they’ll will see a pair of the world’s best in Manchester United’s Robin van Persie (96 caps / 49 goals with NED) and Schalke’s Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (71 caps / 39 goals with NED). The USA’s strike force has scored a total of nine international goals combined. As Klinsmann looks to develop the next generation of American marksmen, he’ll hope the five he has in camp will emulate the Dutch duo and their strike rate in international competition.
“You can’t ever get satisfied. They need to have a ratio where they score at least a goal every third game,” said Klinsmann, who scored 47 goals in 108 international matches while playing for Germany. “That’s what you expect from an international-caliber striker. You have to figure out ways to score goals, ways to create chances for yourself if you aren’t getting them from your teammates.”
With three goals in his first 10 appearances for the National Team, Johannsson is right there in terms of the ratio Klinsmann is looking for. For the striker, achieving that rate comes in part from carrying confidence, something he should have in droves given the way he ended the Dutch Eredivisie campaign with AZ Alkmaar last month. The 24-year-old tallied four goals and set up another in his side’s final three matches, including a 35-yard “wonder goal” in a 3-2 win against NAC Breda on May 10 and a bicycle kick tally in Alkmaar’s 4-1 season finale victory at Excelsior on May 17, which helped the club qualify for UEFA Europa League play next season.
MNT forward Aron Johannsson celebrates scoring against Denmark in the USA's first European friendly of 2015.
“To be able to finish it in such a great way for me personally and the team achieving things we were hoping to achieve the whole season, it was an amazing feeling,” Johannsson said. “Obviously it gives me a huge amount of confidence. Strikers need to score goals. To be able to finish the season off on such a good note, it gives me high confidence. I can’t wait for these games. Hopefully we can play a good game and hopefully I can score some goals.”
Juan Agudelo also enters off a positive run of play with his club New England Revolution, having scored four goals this year in MLS. First capped with the MNT in 2010, Agudelo’s 19 appearances are the most of any forward in camp. He returns to the USA again after scoring in the USA's 2-0 friendly win against Mexico in April. Morris was the other goalscorer in that game, punching in his first goal in his first start.
In the end, the group of strikers agree that it’s the player who can score consistently that is the most likely to be on the field. Agudelo said the first few days of camp have proved competitive among his fellow attackers.
“All the strikers are here competing against each other, even in finishing drills after training,” he said. “It’s friendly competition and it’s good because we’re pushing each other to be our best.”
Juan Agudelo celebrates scoring for the U.S. for the first time in more than a year as his goal capped off the USA's 2-0 win against Mexico in March.
Being in the same boat has turned this group in a bit of young striker’s fraternity, according to Gyasi Zardes.
“We’re at the beginning of our journey, and it’s good for all of us,” Zardes said. “I’m learning so much in every camp with the National Team. I know it’s going to help my growth of being a better striker. I’m constantly trying to learn not just from the coaching staff and the trainers, but also from my teammates. We’re always trying to work and be better.”
At LA Galaxy, Zardes relishes the opportunity of playing alongside and learning day-in and day-out from the reigning MLS MVP Robbie Keane; a player who has scored 65 goals in 139 matches for the Republic of Ireland. Now in camp, Zardes says he’s gaining more advice from another renowned striker, his coach.
“Jurgen plays me up top, but he plays me out wide as well. He says that you never want to be satisfied with just one goal; you have to want more. He was a phenomenal striker in his career and he’s always giving me advice, which is nice as a young forward.”
Gyasi Zardes is congratulated by his teammates for helping set up Clint Dempsey's goal with a spectacular individual effort in the USA's 2-0 win against Panama in February.
With the CONCACAF Gold Cup on the horizon and the USA’s experienced marksmen expected to return, the common wisdom is that a good showing in the two upcoming friendlies would give these young players a huge leg up for the final spots on the roster for the continental championship.
“I feel this is our last hurrah before Jurgen chooses the roster,” said Zardes. “I definitely feel like each and every player has to give it their all in this camp. During these games you have to prove that you belong on that Gold Cup roster.”
“Hopefully we can prove a point,” Johannsson added. “It’s two huge games against the number three team from the World Cup and the defending champions. The challenge doesn’t get bigger than this; we have to be at our best level.”