The last time we saw the USMNT, things did not go well. An Ireland squad mostly full of players from the second tier in England put their foot on the accelerator and never let up, winning 4-1 over a team that on paper should have been at least their equal. It was not a good way to end a 2014 that saw the USMNT mostly meet - but rarely exceed - expectations.
As in that match, today's game against Chile involves a road trip and a squad that is more experimental than we'd ever see in World Cup qualifying or the Gold Cup. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has emphasized that he wants this camp to be more about qualifying for the Olympics this coming fall than anything else, and has called up a young group. Several of the youngest players in the squad didn't travel to Chile, but we're still almost certain to see a few players get their first senior cap.
For their part, Chile will also be experimenting; their entire squad plays in the Chilean league. That means stars like Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez won't be taking the field for La Roja. That will certainly affect their quality, but head coach Jorge Sampaio has marked out how Chile will play: A fluid, aggressive 352 that will push high up the field looking to force turnovers and a gameplan emphasizing fast, dynamic attacking moves. They're among soccer's most entertaining teams at full strength, but it remains to be seen whether the squad they have in place today can be a good mimic of the top-choice players.
Key player - Jermaine Jones (USA)
The whole buzz around the US playing some kind of 352 - probably a 3412 given the personnel, but this is Klinsi we're talking about - got started when Jones told the press it was something the team was trying out in practice. As time wore on, we started finding out that in such a scenario, Jones would be used in the middle of that back three (likely as a libero, which is a position the USMNT last used basically in the stone age). Despite the presence of two young D.C. United stars here, I have to say that the top storyline in terms of players in this camp is whether Jones can do everything this new role requires. Can he keep the team around him organized even as he generally is more of an agent of chaos? Can he put his passing to good use even as Chile - as they always do under Sampaio - applies pressure high up the field? And, since we're talking about a career midfielder possibly switching to center back at 33: Can he actually do the individual defending?
Key question - How much time will Perry Kitchen and Steve Birnbaum get?
It's hard to guess what Klinsmann is going to do at any given time, but especially so when he decides to try out yet another formation and uncharacteristically lets that slip out to the media. There's also the troubling fact that the US roster has listed Kitchen as a defender, something he has only done on an emergency basis since becoming a professional. With Klinsmann digging in his heels over where he sees Michael Bradley's best position, it would appear that there's room for him and Wil Trapp to split time at defensive midfield, but perhaps not an opportunity for those two to be paired due to the presence of Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Lee Nguyen, and Luis Gil. It could well be that Klinsmann sees Kitchen as the back-up for Jones today.
As for Birnbaum, one wonders if he'll get a chance to sub in. The smart money is on Matt Hedges and Matt Besler starting on either side of Jones (or as a regular center back duo if this whole back three thing has been nothing but a smokescreen). With only seven subs allowed, Birnbaum would have to have outplayed Shane O'Neill and also hope that Klinsmann doesn't use his subs in the midfield and up top. Of course, for all we know he may have won a starting job in camp itself, so who knows? That's become the defining question of this USMNT era at this point.
Match date/time: Wednesday 1/28, 8pm local, 6pm EST
Venue: Estadio El Teniente (Rancagua, Chile)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish), UniMas (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), FoxSoccer2Go (English), Univision Deportes (Spanish)