Match Preview: USMNT take on Venezuela in World Cup Qualifier tune-up

USA vs. Venezuela
International Friendly
Rio Tinto Stadium – Sandy, Utah
Saturday, June 3 – 7 pm PT
WATCH: FS1, Univision, UDN

Yes, it’s just a friendly, but the US men’s national team’s match against Venezuela on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium feels a bit more important than their usual exhibition.

Saturday’s match will be the only chance this USMNT group will have in a game setting to build partnerships, iron out kinks and settle into a system before their important World Cup qualifiers against Trinidad & Tobago on June 8 and at Mexico on June 11.

Under ideal circumstances, all of the US’s major players would already have a feel for what they’re getting into ahead of Saturday’s match. That’s not quite reality. Though he’s been on the job for over six months, this weekend’s contest will only be Bruce Arena’s fifth match in charge of the USMNT since he replaced Jurgen Klinsmann back in November. Likely qualifying starters Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin and regular striker Bobby Wood have never been in camp under Arena, and Saturday will be their best opportunity to adapt to his tactics and re-integrate with their international teammates.  

For Venezuela, who have already been mathematically eliminated from qualifying for next summer’s World Cup, Saturday’s match will be a good chance to test out some fresh faces in a tough environment. Most of their attention this weekend will actually be on their U-20s, who will play the US in the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup in South Korea a couple of hours after proceedings end in Sandy.

USA Outlook

After rebounding from losses in the opening two games of the Hex by whipping Honduras 6-0 and taking a point out of Panama back in March, the US are right back in the thick of the Hexagonal standings.

“You guys deserve a lot of credit for the group that came in January and the mentality and achievements on the field in March,” Arena told his group in Denver. “I certainly would’ve liked six points, but four points put us right back in the ballgame. So you guys deserve a lot of credit for that, you’re building yourself into a team.”

The Americans are currently in fourth in CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying, one point behind Panama for the third and final automatic qualifying spot. That’s a relatively comfortable position, but a slip-up in Colorado against Trinidad & Tobago would be a massive blow ahead of the trip to Mexico, where the Americans have never even gotten a result – never mind a win – in qualifying.

That’s why Saturday’s match carries a good deal of import. Arena will have to find the balance between allowing his starters to get in rhythm with each other without putting them under too much strain ahead of their two-qualifiers-in-four-days stretch. Expect him to start a first-choice lineup, then rotate a good number of players – especially those coming off of lengthy European seasons – throughout the second half.

Another thing to watch for on Saturday? Clint Dempsey’s pursuit of the USMNT scoring record. The Seattle Sounders striker is one goal away from tying Landon Donovan for the all-time USMNT lead with 57 goals. After bagging a hat trick against Honduras and scoring again at Panama in March, that record is definitely in reach on Saturday night.

Venezuela Outlook

Venezuela have had a rough time since making a surprising run to the quarterfinals of last summer’s Copa America Centenario, posting a 1-5-2 record in eight matches to slip to last in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying. They’ve already been eliminated from contention to qualify for the World Cup, and look like they’ll bleed some relatively inexperienced players during this international window, which will see them follow up Saturday’s match with a friendly against Ecuador in South Florida on June 8.

Only three players on La Vinotinto’s 27-man roster have more than 30 career caps, and 14 have appeared for the senior team fewer than five times. Head coach Rafael Dudamel won’t even be in attendance in Utah on Saturday, as he’s currently in South Korea with the U-20 team, which he also manages.

The roster is undeniably young, but a few established faces made the trip to the States. Most notable among them is striker Salomon Rondon, who scored eight goals in 37 matches for West Brom in the recently completed English Premier League season and has 19 goals in 59 career caps with Venezuela.

History

The US and Venezeula have met four times in their history, with the US posting an unbeaten 3-0-1 record in those matchups. The US have won the last three meetings since La Vinotinto scored three late goals to erase a 3-0 deficit and draw the Americans during the first match between the countries in the group stage of the 1993 Copa America.

The last meeting between the nations came on Jan. 21, 2012, when Ricardo Clark scored a 90th minute goal to give the US a 1-0 win over Venezuela at University of Phoenix Stadium. In the previous matchup, Dempsey scored and Arena gave Michael Bradley his USMNT debut as the US beat Venezuela 3-0 in a friendly in Cleveland ahead of the 2006 World Cup.

Players to Watch

USA – Fabian Johnson

Despite his status as one of the top players in the US pool and regularly playing as a winger for his club team Borussia Monchengladbach, Johnson has never really found a positional home with the USMNT, bouncing between the backline and midfield for the majority of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure. Arena has spoken about wanting to deploy Johnson in his regular midfield position “on a consistent basis,” something he’ll have his first shot at on Saturday after the 29-year-old missed the March qualifiers due to injury.

Venezuela – Jefferson Savarino

The 20-year-old new Real Salt Lake signing hasn’t yet received a senior cap for Venezuela, but he has gotten off to a solid start in MLS, recording a pair of assists in his first five games with RSL. He did play the full 90 in Salt Lake’s 5-1 loss at Houston on Wednesday, so it’s unlikely he’ll got a ton of time on Saturday night, but it’s probably a safe bet to assume he’ll get a runout in his club’s home stadium

USA Roster

Goalkeepers (4): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders (10): Matt Besler (Sporting KC)*, John Brooks (Wolfsburg), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Geoff Cameron (Stoke), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC)

Midfielders (8): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburg)

*According to Julie Stewart-Binks, Besler was allowed to return to SKC -- who have been hit hard by injuries at center back -- for their match on Saturday against Minnesota. He won't be available for the match against Venezuela.

Venezuela Roster

Goalkeepers (2): Alain Baroja (Sud America), Jose Contreras (Deportivo Tachira)

Defenders (10): Alexander Gonzalez (Huesca), Jose Manuel Velazquez (Arouca), Rolf Feltscher (Zaragoza), Mikel Villanueva (Malaga), Pablo Camacho (Deportivo Tachira), Rubert Quijada (Caracas), Jefre Vargas (Arouca), John Chancellor (Delfin), Jose Marrufo (Mineros de Guayana), Yordan Osorio (Tondela)

Midfielders (11): Alejandro Guerra (Palmeiras), Romulo Otero (Atletico Mineiro), Francisco Flores (Mineros de Guayana), Arquimedes Figuera (Universitario), Jhon Murillo (Tondela), Jacobo Kouffati (Millonarios), Darwin Machis (Leganes), Francisco La Mantia (La Guaira), Junior Moreno (Zulia), Aristoteles Romero (Mineros de Guayana), Jefferson Savarino (Real Salt Lake)

Forwards (4): Salomon Rondon (West Brom), Christian Santos (Alaves), Edder Farias (Caracas), Andres Ponce (Lugano)