All it takes is one jarring sequence to reinforce the standing doubts and plunge a player into the middle of international uncertainty.
Just ask Tim Ream.
The beleaguered defender – with an assist from some shoddy defending on a throw-in – allowed Jaime Ayoví to cut across him inside the U.S. penalty area and nod home the winner in Ecuador's 1-0 victory at Red Bull Arena on Tuesday night.
Cries soon rang out from every corner of the frantic American soccer community to offer alternatives to Ream (and the similarly scrutinized Michael Orozco Fiscal) in central defense. The breadth of these responses suggests a willingness to look outside the box and underscores the discontent with the current options behind Carlos Bocanegra and – if he continues to play as well as he did against Ecuador and receives regular match action in Portugal – Oguchi Onyewu.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann offered his support to Ream in his post-match press conference, but Klinsmann will no doubt continue to consider other choices as he weighs the positives and negatives of keeping the spotlight shining so brightly on the promising New York center back.
When Klinsmann scours MLS for additions in central defense, he will find several potential candidates who have mounted a potential international case with persuasive domestic displays. Los Angeles defender Omar Gonzalez looms as the most touted option, but the likes of Nat Borchers, Geoff Cameron, Jay DeMerit, George John, Ugo Ihemelu and Chad Marshall offer a wide variety of other possibilities in the short-, medium- and long-term.
(Note: The Musings took a fairly detailed look at Klinsmann's domestic options in all departments after the initial trio of friendlies.)
Each of those players possesses his own unique set of strengths and weaknesses for the international game, but all of them – with perhaps one notable exception – share one thing in common: they focus first and foremost on defending.
At this particular juncture and with Klinsmann's current options and displayed proclivities in central defense, that preference may not particularly suit the former German national team boss.
Part of the problem is that naming anyone from that group – with the exception of Cameron – represents adding more of the same to the squad. Klinsmann already relies upon Bocanegra, Onyewu and Clarence Goodson (when selected) to assume the traditional center back responsibilities. All three regulars remain seasoned and viable options (and they all supply slightly different traits) at the international level, but they also offer a measure of redundancy within the defensive group.
Klinsmann's tactical approach to setting up his team places significant emphasis on locating a distributor out of the back to help in possession. The continued call-ups for Orozco Fiscal and Ream illustrate Klinsmann's belief in that concept and the need to expand from the usual choices in central defense. In an ideal world, Klinsmann would likely pair one of the more physical players (captain Bocanegra is the first choice) with a more cultured option to provide a reliable passing outlet out of the back.
The difficulties encountered by Orozco Fiscal and Ream likely eliminate those complimentary pairings right now and present Klinsmann with a philosophical quandary of sorts as he continues to mold his squad. Current form suggests that other options probably should come before Orozco Fiscal and Ream in the pecking order, but the potential alternatives may not prove quite as suitable within the system he is trying to construct.
It isn't a matter of whether Klinsmann possesses potential options to replace Orozco Fiscal or Ream. MLS has supplied him with other possible players to include in central defense instead. It is a matter of whether Klinsmann wants to deviate from his overall blueprint to include a player or two that offers qualities that do not necessarily fit completely within it.
Klinsmann's character suggests that he may prefer to maintain the faith in his current approach and set his sights further down the line, but – as Ream can attest after his tumultuous year and his difficult substitute appearance on his home ground – the circumstances can change quickly in the international game.
Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.