Tuesday’s last-gasp win away to Panama was a fitting end to USMNT’s World Cup qualification campaign. As had happened many times during the Hexagonal, the U.S. was down, and not quite clicking. But, through a combination of luck, pluck, persistence, and skill, the U.S. found a way to win. Incorporating new faces with old heads, Jürgen Klinsmann has done a masterful job of managing the assets he has, while nurturing young up-and-comers.
The U.S. now has no meaningful games to play before the World Cup next summer, barring some friendlies, so most personnel decisions have likely been made. As such, it’s a good time to look at the state of the squad, and review where the roster stands, position by position.
Tim Howard reigns supreme here. Brad Guzan is a serviceable back-up—he’s better than many countries’ first choice stoppers, in truth—but Howard is first choice, and for a reason. Nick Rimando is the third keeper, and there are several young keepers like Sean Johnson waiting in the wings. The U.S. has always been well represented at this position, but an injury to Howard would be a loss.
Center backs: This is still a trouble position for the U.S.. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler appear to be the most effective pairing, but Clay Goodson will probably make the final roster, too. Geoff Cameron is certainly going to Brazil, as one of the most versatile players in the pool. He may not be first choice in any of his positions (right back, center back, and defensive midfield), but his ability to back up so many makes him a guaranteed part of the squad. There has been buzz about young John Brooks, who plays for Hertha in the German Bundesliga, and has been playing well. Certainly, club form counts for a lot with Klinsmann, but Brooks’s almost complete lack of national team experience will count against him. Unless he plays a very prominent role in some of the upcoming friendlies, don’t expect him to earn a seat on the plane.
Left back: DaMarcus Beasley has this locked up. Neither Fabian Johnson nor Edgar Castillo defend as well as Beasley, which is a surprise, considering Beasley’s career as a winger. Johnson will likely go to Brazil, though, as much for his offensive skills as his ability to play in the back. Castillo is on the fringe. His defensive play is sometimes a serious liability, but he can contribute going forward. If Johnson or Beasley are injured before the Cup, he has a much better chance of making it. No other young players are on the radar.
Right back: A lot will depend on Steve Cherundolo’s health. Assuming he’s healthy and playing, he’s probably the U.S.’s top player at the position. Brad Evans, another converted midfielder, has shown himself to be quite competent there, and plays well offensively, too, but Cherundolo, when healthy, is better, and his experience is something Klinsmann would be foolish to ignore.
Michael Bradley: Bradley gets his own section, for the simple reason that he is the most important player on the entire roster. If Bradley is healthy and playing well, this is possibly the best United States men’s team in history. If he’s not, then the team is still good, but has little chance of making any noise at all at the World Cup. His presence in midfield, as an outlet for the defense, as a maintainer of calm possession, and as an instigator of offense cannot be replicated by any other player in the pool. Against CONCACAF opposition, the U.S. has gotten by without him, and it’s probably improved the play of his teammates, but against the top European and South American sides, the U.S. has very little chance of success without Bradley. He is irreplaceable right now.
Central midfield: Jermaine Jones has his doubters, but he is the odds-on favorite to partner Bradley. And in that scenario, he is quite a useful player. He also adds extra muscle without giving up too much in other areas. Kyle Beckerman is the third option here, though is unlikely to see more than spot duty if both Bradley and Jones are fit. Danny Williams looked likely to make the roster not too long ago, but hasn’t been used by Klinsmann in a long time.
Attacking midfield: The players certain to come along in these positions are Landon Donovan and Graham Zusi. Alejandro Bedoya looks closer and closer to having earned a spot, as has Mix Diskerud, though either could be cut, depending on choices in other areas. Stuart Holden is the wild card right now. His injury concern is great, but if by chance he is healthy and playing by World Cup time, Klinsmann may take a flyer on bringing him along. If you classify Clint Dempsey as a midfielder, which in the U.S.’s 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 he is, then he is almost assured of a spot, assuming he is healthy. Recent quotes by Klinsmann about Dempsey’s place in the team seem more about motivating him than anything else.
Forwards: This group has seen the most change in the last nine months. Jozy Altidore’s break-out year has secured him the starting spot leading the U.S. line, barring an injury or massive drop in form. Aron Jóhannsson has emerged from dark horse to absolute lock with his scintillating club form and very promising showings in limited minutes for the national side. (A side note about Jóhannsson: He scored his first national team goal on Tuesday, beating Panama in the process. It was a very well-taken goal, but Jóhannsson, knowing that beating Panama eliminated them from the World Cup, chose not to celebrate, and went so far as to console Panamanian players after the final whistle, as did others on the team. It’s a sign that not only is he looking like a great player, he has a real maturity, too. He’s a keeper, and the U.S. is lucky to have him.) Eddie Johnson is another player who should definitely be on the plane, as his combination of power and technique, as well as his ability to play both centrally and wide, make him a necessary part of the squad. A year ago, the final forward spot would have been Herculez Gomez’s, and may be again, but his struggles with injury and form may have lost him his place for now. If Gomez isn’t the choice, then Terrence Boyd seems the likeliest to take his place, and his showing against Panama on Tuesday was very encouraging.
Starting 11: Tim Howard; DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Steve Cherundolo; Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi; Jozy Altidore.
Reserves: Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando; Fabian Johnson, Clay Goodson, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans; Kyle Beckerman, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya; Aron Jóhannsson, Eddie Johnson, Herculez Gomez
Missing out: Edgar Castillo, John Brooks, Danny Williams, Stuart Holden, Terrence Boyd
That’s a nice squad right there. The starting 11 is very strong, and the bench has several very good options, especially offensively. The U.S. is thinnest in the back, where an injury to Beasley would be problematic, and the relative inexperience of the starting center backs could be an issue. Cherundolo’s health is also a problem. If he can’t make the squad, then right back is thin, too.
Klinsmann is doing a good job of managing expectations, but assuming the squad as projected here is ready for the tournament, then U.S. fans should expect getting out of the group to be the minimum requirement. Whether the U.S. can do any better than that is entirely dependent on the draw, of course, but be optimistic. The U.S. isn’t an elite side yet, but exactly no one wants to play us, and that role of spoiler is one the team revels in.
Is it June yet?