With the final round of qualifying underway, we take a look at who might be representing the United Sates in Brazil 2014, should the Yanks qualify.
With that in mind, we're starting a new feature, taking a monthly look at the players vying for a spot in the 23-man sqaud and making our prediction based on the latest form, comments and painstaking augury.
First Class to Rio
There’s a select group that, barring injury, are dead locks to be headed to Brazil. Clint Dempsey is on the plane, no questions asked. So is Michael Bradley, who could be headed there as the team’s outfield leader if Carlos Bocanegra’s then-35 years catch up with him. As soon as he’s done gazing wistfully into the sunset, you can bet your bacon Landon Donovan will have to get a new stamp page on his passport.
A back line core of sorts, comprised of Timothy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, and Fabian Johnson, are certain to be among the 23. Jermaine Jones is a personal favorite of Jurgen Klinsmann’s for his intense work rate, and he has more top-level experience than any other U.S. international.
Finally, Tim Howard is so on the plane, they’ve called him up to the cockpit, let him fly it a bit, and given him a pair of novelty pilot's wings and some aviator sunglasses.
Sitting In Coach
There are other players who are on the plane right now, but mostly due to age and form, aren’t quite as comfortable in their seats.
Current captain Carlos Bocanegra and his able lieutenant, Steve Cherundolo, are two of the finest defenders this country has ever produced, but they will be 35 by the time the World Cup rolls around. Hungry, younger players are after their spots. Omar Gonzalez showed on Wednesday that he has plenty to learn still, but possesses far too much potential to throw him away at this point, and versatile Michael Parkhurst is the perfect age (he’ll be 30 by WC time), with big-time experience having played in the Champions League.
Strikers are the players most commonly judged on recent form, and, when it comes to goalscoring, a coach usually sticks with the hot hand. Jozy Altidore has matured on and off the pitch, but he’s never quite been Klinsmann’s favorite and hasn’t scored for the U.S. since a penalty against Slovenia in November 2011. An early career decline or simple poor form could put then-32-year-old Klinsmann favorite Herculez Gomez out of contention. But as of now, both are on the plane. The happiest person ever to be in Stoke-Upon-Trent, Brek Shea, is the most promising U-23 talent the Americans have, but he’s coming off an iffy 2012 and taking a step up in quality.
In a crowded midfield corps there’s going to be someone big left out, but for the moment, Danny Williams and Maurice Edu are preferred. Brad Guzan is starting for “Premier League” side Aston Villa and has the deputy job until someone wins it off him.
In The Departure Lounge
This is where things get fun. There are a lot of guys who are either slowly pushing themselves into the national team fold, or who will need a good burst of form at the right time to force their way back in.
If infamously streaky Eddie Johnson goes cold, he’ll be sitting on his La-Z Boy as the Yanks take the field. If he grabs a couple of important goals in qualifying and gets off to an encouraging start in MLS come 2014, he’s got too much talent and experience to ignore.
The not-quite-youthful-not-quite-veteran MLS-based crew of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler and Kyle Beckerman have been included in recent squads, and should be regarded as low-risk bets. If they prove themselves in the eyes of Jurgen Klinsmann, great. If not, more familiar options like Clarence Goodson, Edgar Castillo, and Johnathan Bornstein are hanging around, as is Azteca-friendly hero Michael Orozco-Fiscal.
One thing Klinsmann has failed to fully utilize is the pool of American creative midfielders. Sacha Kljestan's gift for keeping possession is something the U.S. sorely needs, and his experience in Europe outstrips most of the similarly-inclined players in the national team conversation. He'll have stiff competition from Benny Feilhaber, though, as well as guys like Jose Torres, Joe Corona, and Brad Evans. Should a tactical adjustment ensue following the loss to Honduras, Josh Gatt and Brad Davis are options, both offering width of different sorts and Davis the best set piece delivery in the pool.
While a third goalkeeper has never been called upon in the history of the World Cup, it's smart to play it safe. The vastly experienced Nick Rimando is the favorite at the moment, barring fantastic development from Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid.
If he ever gets fit, Stuart Holden is probably in with a good shot. That’s a monumental “if” at this point, though. A 96-point, bold, double underlined, italic "IF".
Waiting By The Phone
They don't plan to be in Brazil, and most of them aren't troubling the radar much, but there's something to be said for the ability to call on a veteran if things go downhill.
He may be king of MLS, but San Jose Earthquakes hitman Chris Wondolowski looks destined to be a deranged pretender wandering the international wilderness, having failed to score in his 11 games with the nats. If injuries hit the U.S. front line, though, and Wondo is still bagging goals in record numbers in MLS, he might be the best emergency option.
Oguchi Onyewu will be only 32 come next June, but Klinsmann hasn't yet been able to overlook his shortcomings in mobility and on-the-ball composure, and a shaky injury history and club situation have pushed the towering defender far down the pecking order.
And then there's always DaMarcus Beasley to consider. Run-DMB may not have the blistering pace he displayed as a 20-year-old, but he's a vastly experienced player still performing at a high level, and he'll have just turned 32 by the time the plane leaves for Brazil.
Don’t Even Bother
Sorry, Freddy Adu. It ain’t happening.
CURRENT PROJECTED SQUAD:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
DEFENDERS (8): Timothy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Carlos Bocanegra, Omar Gonzalez, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Parkhurst, Edgar Castillo
MIDFIELDERS (7): Bradley, Jones, Williams, Edu, Feilhaber, Zusi, Kljestan
FORWARDS (5): Dempsey, Donovan, Altidore, Gomez, Shea
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