GLASGOW (Scotland) – The United States men's national team close out 2013 with back-to-back friendlies against Scotland and Austria, with an eye on next year's World Cup in Brazil.
The Americans first face a Scottish side in rebuilding mode here Friday at Hampden Park in what will be the final one played at the historic venue for now -- Hampden is being fitted with an athletic track as Glasgow prepares to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. They then move on to Austria for the first time since 1998 on Tuesday.
Neither of the Americans' opponents is a powerhouse: the Scots haven't qualified for a major international tournament since the 1998 World Cup; Austria's World Cup run is equally barren but they at least figured in the 2008 Euros. Both nations have seen their domestic leagues precipitously decline due to the power of some immediate neighbors and neither have been able to kickstart their development programs to compensate. However, both have enjoyed long histories in the game on the international stage and are looking to make their mark on a side most Europeans still consider an upstart. Scotland found out the folly of that last May when the USA whipped them 5-1.
Jurgen Klinsmann has called in a mixed bag of players for the two matches, aiming to give several players a chance. Aston Villa keeper Brad Guzan is nursing a slight injury, which will give MLS-based Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson a chance to compete for the number-three spot. Landon Donovan is also carrying an ankle injury, giving a chance for Norway-based Mix Diskerud and Rapid Vienna's Terence Boyd to impress. Clarence Goodson and Edgar Castillo are also sidelined due to lingering ailments. Two players will be making their returns to Scotland as well: former Rangers stars DaMarcus Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya.
Other fringe players getting a look include Eric Lichaj and Brek Shea. Lichaj has not appeared with the national side since 2011 and is currently toiling with Championship side Nottingham Forest, who are sitting in the playoff places at the break, and Lichaj being a consistent starter, this is as good a time for a look as any. Shea's inclusion may be more for morale: he has been barely used at Stoke and there are questions over his future with the club. It is arguable that this pair of friendlies could serve as his chance in the shop window ahead of a winter move.
Video: Does Clint Dempsey need to go on loan this winter?
Then there's the struggling strike duo of Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. Altidore has yet to score in the Premier League for improving Sunderland, who remain enmeshed in a struggle for survival. Altidore has actually been a muscular force up top, looking decent in several games, but has little to no support around him. Dempsey's case is more worrying: he has endured a miserable fall since his high-profile and big-money transfer to Seattle. Dempsey is said to be seeking a loan return to England this winter, possibly back to Fulham or up to Everton.
Most American fans will be keeping an eye on Holland-based Aron Johannsson, the free-scoring striker who replaced Altidore at AZ Alkmaar. The 23-year-old Johannsson has scored 12 goals in 18 games across all play and is a tantalizing prospect for the United States. Most recently, he scored the winning goal in the USA's last World Cup qualifier this October, to beat Panama 3-2.
Scotland have selected a fairly standard group of players to face the USA, helmed by Celtic midfielder Scott Brown. Alan Hutton, Steven Whittaker and Charlie Adam will be familiar to American fans due to their stints in the Premier League. Tellingly, only six players on the Scotland roster are domestic-based, and one of them - Rangers' Lee Wallace - toils in the country's third division. Of those players, only two -- Partick Thistle keeper Scott Fox and Dundee United winger Gary Mackay-Steven - are considered to have long-term potential. That speaks volumes about how far the domestic game has drifted here in this proud and football-mad nation.
One player to keep your eye on is young Jordan Rhodes, the England-born but Scotland-eligible striker. Considered one of the top prospects in the game, Rhodes became the most expensive player in England outside of the top-flight when Blackburn paid a whopping $13m for him. Since then, Blackburn have gone on to report deep losses and speculation is rife that Rhodes, who has scored ten goals this season for Rovers, will have to move to a top-tier side in the winter window. A strong showing here combined with continued fortune for mid-table Blackburn could well force the issue in the coming months.
Scotland squad to face the USA:
Goalkeepers: Scott Fox (Partick Thistle), Matt Gilks (Blackpool), David Marshall (Cardiff City)
Defenders: Christophe Berra (Ipswich Town), Gordon Greer (Brighton & Hove Albion), Grant Hanley (Blackburn Rovers), Alan Hutton (Aston Villa), Russell Martin (Norwich City), Charlie Mulgrew (Celtic), Lee Wallace (Rangers), Steven Whittaker (Norwich City)
Midfielders: Charlie Adam (Stoke City), Ikechi Anya (Watford), Barry Bannan (Crystal Palace), Scott Brown (Celtic), Craig Bryson (Derby County), Chris Burke (Birmingham City), Craig Conway (Brighton & Hove Albion), James Forrest (Celtic), Gary Mackay-Steven (Dundee United), James McArthur (Wigan Athletic), James Morrison (West Bromwich Albion), Matt Phillips (Queens Park Rangers), Robert Snodgrass (Norwich City)
Forwards: Steven Fletcher (Sunderland), Steven Naismith (Everton), Jordan Rhodes (Blackburn Rovers)