Monday, August 12, 2013

Everybody in the pool

These are heady days for US men's national team fans. The United States is riding high in El Hex with four games to go and a World Cup berth tantalizingly close, MLS appears to be moving from strength to strength, Anglophiles have a new hero to cheer on/fret over (delete as necessary) in the Premiership, and Mexico can't keep from tripping over its own shoelaces. After facing serious questions about his performance earlier this year, Jurgen Klinsmann is basking in his own personal Era of Good Feelings, not to mention an 11-game winning streak and the reflection of his first trophy as a manager.

One of the most-repeated hosannas in the wake of the United States retaking the Gold Cup is that the national team player pool is the deepest it's ever been. That's an interesting turn of events if true, especially considering there's a vocal section of American soccer fans that considers MLS and US Soccer's player development broken and in dire need of repair. There is obviously still work to be done in World Cup qualifying -- the United States is 0-2-5 all-time at Costa Rica, with the two draws coming in 1985 and 1992, and Mexico will be desperate to end a slide that has seen it win just one of its six qualifiers -- but fans have the luxury of turning an eye toward next year's big show in Brazil. Who stands the best chance of getting on that plane? What follows is an attempt at drawing up a four-deep depth chart at each position, plus a handful of contenders, also-rans and ones for the future.

In the mix: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando, Sean Johnson
Outside looking in: Bill Hamid, Tally Hall, Brad Friedel, Dan Kennedy

This is by far the easiest position to assess. Everton fans may grouse about Howard's occasional eccentricity in goal, but if he's healthy he is the clear-cut US No. 1. His recent performance against Juventus shows what he can be like near the top of his game. Should Howard's powers wane considerably during the upcoming season, though, fans should feel at ease with Guzan deputizing. Guzan, who turned around his Aston Villa career last season and was named the club's player of the year, looked solid in posting shutouts of Costa Rica and Mexico the first time through El Hex, filling in while Howard was out injured. Rimando looks set to assume the Juergen Sommer "Just Happy to Be Here" No. 3 goalkeeper spot after his Gold Cup performance, and Johnson rounds out the four-deep by virtue of his actually playing in the Gold Cup, unlike Hamid. Hall has yet to see the field for the national team, and Kennedy hasn't even been called up despite being one of the few bright spots at Chivas USA. Yes, Friedel said he was retired from international duty, but if the situation ever got so dire Klinsmann would consider making that call, do you think a great patriot like Brad Friedel would say no? Of course not.

Center back
In the mix: Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Geoff Cameron
Outside looking in: Michael Orozco Fiscal, Oguchi Onyewu, Carlos Bocanegra, John Anthony Brooks, Tim Ream, Zak Whitbread, AJ DeLaGarza, Jay DeMerit, Gale Agbossoumonde, Walker Zimmerman

What a difference six months can make. Going into El Hex, center back was one of the main worries for Klinsmann and US fans. All the central defenders seemed to be too old, too broken or too green, and untimely mental lapses that helped Honduras rally to beat a sluggish US team in the opening qualifier did little to help settle the matter. Since then, though, the defense has righted itself with Besler and Gonzalez at its core. Gonzalez is 24 and Besler 26, so the team could have a foundation, much like the Marcelo Balboa-Alexi Lalas era, around which to build for years to come. The question might be whether staying in MLS hurts their growth as players, though taking that path didn't stop Eddie Pope from being a mainstay for the national team. Goodson played his way onto the plane with his showing at the Gold Cup, utilizing not only his size but a surprising amount of skill in his distribution. Cameron, meanwhile, is Klinsmann's Swiss army knife -- whether he's at center back, right back or defensive midfield, he'll do the job and probably do it well. Guys such as these are invaluable when a manager is limited to a 23-man roster.

Orozco did himself a world of good in the Gold Cup, teaming up well as the quicker, more mobile counterpart to Goodson's aerial presence. Whether he goes to Brazil or not might come down to a numbers game. Onyewu, on the other hand, can probably expect to have next summer free. He was originally called up for the Gold Cup but struggled to make much of an impact, instead making way for Besler and Gonzalez after the quarterfinals. Staying healthy and going somewhere he can play regularly could get him back in the discussion, but it'll be tough. There was much rending of garments and gnashing of teeth when Klinsmann left former captain Bocanegra on the bench for the Honduras loss and dropped him altogether afterward, a move that appears to have worked out. Charlie Blackmouth has experience on his side, though, and if he can help quell the dumpster fire that is Chivas USA, a future call-up isn't outside the realm of possibility.

DeMerit was a great story in 2010, but injuries and age have taken their toll. While he's close to returning to the field after rupturing an Achilles' tendon on opening day this season, it's questionable if he'll have time to play his way onto Klinsmann's radar. Ream (Bolton) and Whitbread (Leicester) appear to be stuck in Championship purgatory, and it's probably a World Cup cycle too soon for the likes of DeLaGarza, Agbossoumonde and Zimmerman. That leaves John Anthony Brooks, the 20-year-old Hertha Berlin defender who looks set for a US call-up this month. Brooks is 6-foot-4, skillful and already a key part of Hertha's team, so it's understandable why Klinsmann might want to fast-track him into the senior team.

In the mix
Left: Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley, Edgar Castillo, Corey Ashe
Right: Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans
Outside looking in: Michael Parkhurst, Jonathon Spector, Eric Lichaj, Tony Beltran, Steven Beitashour, Jonathan Bornstein

Ah, fullback -- the bane of US managers for decades. For years central defenders have been moved out wide and wingers shifted into the back line as managers searched for that perfect blend of defensive solidity and extra attacking width. While Klinsmann's best options at fullback still have a bit of a patchwork look about them, it's hard to argue with success. There's not much doubt Johnson is a superior fullback to Beasley -- the former is 6-feet 163 lbs. to the latter's 5-foot-8 146 lbs. and has shown the ability to contribute at both ends -- but the starting job may ultimately hinge on where Klinsmann plays Landon Donovan. If Donovan comes off the bench or starts up top, that frees Johnson to move to left midfield and Beasley to left back. If Donovan plays left midfield (now that Graham Zusi has a stranglehold on right midfield), Johnson likely starts at left back, even considering the understanding Donovan and Beasley have after playing together for more than a decade.

Castillo has done just enough to stay in the mix, and while Ashe keeps getting call-ups circumstances keep conspiring to prevent him from earning his first cap. On the right, Old Man Cherundolo still offers the best balance of defense and attack, though his increasingly wonky knee may keep him from playing in his third World Cup. Chandler was the New Hotness at one point but has drawn the ire of US soccer fans and officials for appearing to consider playing for the United States a distant second to turning out for his club, Nuremberg. Cameron can fill in at right back, though his contribution to the attack is questionable, and Evans did enough in his fill-in role during qualifying to make Klinsmann think hard about whether to include him in the travel party to Brazil.

Parkhurst showed during the Gold Cup that he was a serviceable right back at the Concacaf level, but his adaptability and steadiness may not overcome his lack of addition to the attack. Spector has shown his worth to the national team in the past but hasn't received much attention from Klinsmann, and he could be on the shelf for a while after fracturing his cheekbone. Lichaj, who can play either fullback spot, could get the playing time he needs to make his case to Klinsmann after joining Nottingham Forest in the off-season. Beltran and Beitashour will have to wait for the next qualifying cycle to make their mark, and Bornstein will always have the love of Honduras as he toils away in Mexico.

Central midfield
In the mix: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Mikkel Diskerud, Geoff Cameron
Outside looking in: Kyle Beckerman, Sacha Kljestan, Jose Francisco Torres, Danny Williams, Maurice Edu, Stuart Holden, Dax McCarty, Luis Gil

Moving into the midfield, we go from dearth to depth. Possibilities for this position group have opened up since Klinsmann started moving away from fielding two defensive/shielding/holding (delete as necessary) midfielders and allowed himself the luxury of one of those newfangled box-to-box midfielders. Bradley, of course, can do any and all of the above -- protect the back line, anchor the midfield, distribute the ball, push forward into the attack, you name it. If he's healthy, he's the first name on the team sheet, and the Belgium loss may have been a hint as to how different a team the United States is without him in the lineup.

Jones is, as ever, an enigma; an all-action midfielder who can be a destructive force to the other team or his own depending on the day. To Jones' credit, he has ceased trying to do everything for the national team and instead found his place in Klinsmann's team setup, but he's still a yellow card waiting to happen and might not be able to count on a starting spot once the full national team reassembles. Diskerud was one of the biggest bright spots of the US Gold Cup run, showing he had the motor and passing ability to be a viable box-to-box option. Cameron's brief run as a central midfielder was a timely reminder he's more than just a defender and somewhat handy on the ball in his own right. Fielding Cameron as a No. 6 would allow Bradley to push forward more often, which he can do to devastating effect, without having to worry about leaving the back line exposed.

Going into the Gold Cup, Beckerman looked to be the closest thing the current player pool had to the classic midfield destroyers (think Chris Armas or Pablo Mastroeni) of national teams past. Any thoughts of the dreadlocked wonder being purely one-dimensional quickly faded, though, as he, too, showed he could be trusted with the ball at his feet. The rest of 2013 should be instructive as to how Klinsmann sees Beckerman fitting into the full national team. Kljestan shouldn't be penalized too much for being considered "above" being called in for the Gold Cup. He's shown his worth before and, unlike most of his peers, has Champions League games in which to strut his stuff. Instead, his concern may be how much room Klinsmann thinks there is in his squad for true central midfielders. Torres was OK at the Gold Cup but didn't do as much to bolster his name as the likes of Beckerman, Joe Corona or Alejandro Bedoya. With spots in the middle of the park at a premium, he might find himself competing for one of the wide midfield spots with players more accustomed to the wings.

Injuries and lack of playing time have dogged Williams and Edu, and while Edu is still trying to find a home, Williams appears to have landed nicely, having played twice already for Reading and apparently earning a call-up for this week's friendly against Bosnia. Holden, meanwhile, has cemented the title of the New John O'Brien -- the talented US midfielder with knees of glass. It's not impossible he'll be playing again before the World Cup, but playing at a level worthy of a call-up might be a bridge too far. McCarty has made great strides in becoming one of the finest central midfielders in Major League Soccer, but earning Klinsmann's affections has proven beyond one of the league's best tweeters. Gil could be a surprise inclusion for upcoming camps if Klinsmann chooses to reward him for being the silver lining of a dismal Under-20 World Cup for the United States, though he'd have to make up quite a bit of ground to be within shouting distance of going to Brazil.

Wide midfield
In the mix
Left: Fabian Johnson, Landon Donovan, Brek Shea, Josh Gatt
Right: Graham Zusi, Landon Donovan, Joe Corona, Alejandro Bedoya
Outside looking in: Brad Davis, DaMarcus Beasley, Jose Francisco Torres, Joe Gyau, Bobby Convey, Justin Mapp

Much like fullback, there isn't a huge amount of depth on the wings for the United States, though more is apparent now than before the Gold Cup. As stated above, who plays wide left may hinge on how Klinsmann chooses to deploy Donovan and Johnson. Beasley may be something of a liability defensively against higher-level opponents, meaning Johnson moves to left back and Donovan to left midfield, freeing up the withdrawn striker role for someone else. Players who normally patrol central midfield could also find themselves competing for places out wide as spots in the middle become increasingly scarce. There is little doubt that Zusi nailed down the right side of midfield during Donovan's absence and looks unlikely to let it go anytime soon, though Donovan certainly could step in there if asked.

Shea has made his name thus far as an impact sub for the United States -- just ask Mexico and Panama. The question now is whether he can play and grow (not to mention stay healthy) enough at Stoke to turn into a 60- or 70-minute player rather than a 20- or 30-minute one. Klinsmann appears to still look favorably on Gatt despite his injury record, something he'll want to clear up soon if he hopes to go to Brazil. The young winger has speed to burn but much to learn. Corona and his club Tijuana are making waves in Mexico and hoping to build on last season's run to the Copa Libertadores semifinals, and Bedoya is enjoying a big step up in competition after swapping the Swedish top flight for France's Ligue 1. Odds are both will have much more to say for themselves before US Soccer hands out the tickets to Brazil.

Davis is an excellent midfielder at the MLS level but has yet to make much of a splash in the international arena. Still, left-footed dead-ball specialists don't exactly grow on trees, especially in this country. Beasley could slot in at left midfield since that's where he plays for Puebla, but Klinsmann likely has other plans for him, and Torres could do a job out wide but is best suited to central midfield. Gyau has been a steady presence among US youth teams but has yet to crack the senior squad. After spending last season on loan to St. Pauli from Hoffenheim, it looks as though he'll get farmed out again and may have to wait until the next World Cup cycle. Injuries and playing for Toronto have seen Convey's star dim, and Mapp looked great while Montreal was tearing up MLS but both have since come back down to Earth. Then again, would Mapp really fit in with a midfield boasting well-coiffed men such as Shea, Beckerman and Diskerud?

In the mix: Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson
Outside looking in: Landon Donovan, Chris Wondolowski, Terrence Boyd, Will Bruin, Alan Gordon, Juan Agudelo, Aron Johannsson, Bobby Wood, Jack McInerney

Much like Bradley in central midfield, up top there's Altidore and whoever is playing around Altidore. America's new Premiership hope should have plenty of motivation as he tries to shed the baggage from his forgettable spell with Hull -- whether the service is there to get him the scoring chances he needs is a different story. Regardless, Altidore is the best thing going among American strikers right now and will have to tail off considerably for his place in the national team to come under threat again. To say Dempsey's return to MLS has divided opinion would be an understatement, but with just a year to go until the World Cup and one guaranteed loan out to a European club written into his Seattle contract, it's unlikely the 30-year-old will regress significantly. If anything, being midway into the 2014 MLS season instead of coming off another grueling Premiership campaign might make Dempsey a greater threat in Brazil.

Gomez, who recently joined the growing American contingent at Tijuana, has been a reliable presence up front for Klinsmann since the latter took charge in 2011. Having left Santos Laguna, where he was an effective scorer off the bench, Gomez will be asked to carry more of the offensive load for Xolos after the club's leading striker Duvier Riascos left for Pachuca. That may not be great news for US fans as Gomez has had knee problems, and those could be exacerbated by playing more minutes on Tijuana's artificial turf. Seeing Eddie Johnson rise again has been a joy -- he could've burned out after his European career stalled and he went four years without scoring for the national team, but he looks reborn after joining Seattle and playing under Klinsmann. His ability as an impact sub and being able to play up top or out wide should make him a good bet for the World Cup.

Donovan certainly isn't on the outside looking in as far as the roster goes -- rather, it's a question of where he fits in best. Playing him in midfield allows Klinsmann to field Altidore as the striker and one of Dempsey or Gomez behind him. Donovan showed during the Gold Cup he can play in the hole, too, giving Der Kaiser Amerikaner one of his more pleasant selection headaches. Wondolowski proved he was more than the latest version of Jason Kreis (good scorer in MLS, too limited in international play), but his lack of impact against the likes of Costa Rica, Honduras and Panama in the Gold Cup leaves some doubt as to his effectiveness on the biggest stage. He wouldn't keep getting called up if Klinsmann didn't believe in his abilities, though. Boyd has been the most vocal among the GermAmericans about his enthusiasm for playing for the United States, and he has shown flashes of ability while with the national team. He may need to find a level higher than the Austrian Bundesliga to find a way into Klinsmann's reckoning, though.

Bruin and Gordon bring a change of pace in the form of big bodies more akin to the prototypical center forward, but neither has seen much time under Klinsmann. Agudelo has finally secured his move to Europe, joining the American revolution at Stoke (aka Tijuana East), though he could be a bit fatigued come June 2014 after finishing the 2013 season with New England and moving to England in January. Switching loyalties from Iceland to the United States hasn't harmed Johannsson's form, having scored three times in three competitive games for AZ Alkmaar, and this week's friendly is a perfect chance for all parties to learn how the new guy fits into the player pool. Wood (20) and McInerney (21) are both exciting young talents and have received looks from Klinsmann but may have to wait for the next World Cup cycle to make their mark on the national team.

Who's on the plane?
Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando; Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Clarence Goodson, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley, Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler; Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Mikkel Diskerud, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea, Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi; Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson.

This is obviously so premature as to be ridiculous, but there wouldn't be much point in writing this post if it didn't include a projected World Cup squad. This group doesn't have a whole lot of width, to be sure, and it's using Cameron as a standby at a few spots. However, if Klinsmann sticks with playing a 4-2-3-1, that would allow Eddie Johnson, Gomez or Dempsey to join Fabian Johnson, Donovan, Zusi or Shea in operating behind Altidore. The key, as it has been for some time, will be how much width and attacking support the fullbacks can add. This bunch also has plenty of potential punch going forward and, with the right draw, could make some serious noise next year in Brazil.

No comments:

Post a Comment