We've got February and a bit of March in the books, and there have been two major developments with the U.S. national team. The first, the U.S. Soccer Federation's centennial kit, is the good news. It eschews both the "totally rad xTREME" flying soccer ball logo that has been an underwhelming mainstay of U.S. jerseys for the last couple of decades and the "Miss America" sash. Not that the new, very generic logo is much better, but at least the Fed is trying to branch out.
The bad news is, of course, the injury to starting goalkeeper Tim Howard. At 34 years old, with 85 caps and something like 500 pro appearances under his belt, Howard is one of the most talented players on the U.S. national team. Perhaps more importantly, he's a leader and a fixture in a defensive unit going through a remodeling process.
But we'll hold off on discussion of how the injury will affect Howard and the national team. It's time to break this whole thing down, and see who's on the plane to Brazil next summer.
First Class To Rio
Locks are locks for a reason. By the very nature of being a lock, something drastic has to happen to derail their career for them to be taken out of the conversation.
So until the unthinkable happens, your central core (as detailed in the previous column) of Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and Geoff Cameron are going to be there, along with fullback pair Timothy Chandler and Fabian Johnson.
The curious outlier is Landon Donovan. The greatest outfield player in national team history has made the right noises about coming back into the fold once he joins up with the LA Galaxy again, and assuming he assures Jurgen Klinsmann he's committed to at least the rest of the cycle, will be a no-brainer.
Finally, the injury to Tim Howard might be painful for the Everton No.1, but it shouldn't keep him out for too long and is a trauma injury rather than a chronic issue, which is good for the Yanks. They should still get three points against Costa Rica on home soil with a backup in net, and nobody ever had Mexico away as marked down than anything other than a probable loss. Even a draw in the Azteca would be a minor miracle.
Sitting In Coach
AZ striker Jozy Altidore is this close to being a lock, what with his sterling club form, physical presence and relative youth, but the former Red Bulls striker needs to reproduce his Eredivisie goalscoring feats in the stars and stripes. Eddie Johnson seems to have worked his way into Klinsmann's good books, although the coach prefers to use the striker out on the left wing at the moment. Herculez Gomez is the American striker with the most experience scoring goals against Mexican defenses, and his continued form is more than enough to keep him in the team.
A big worry for U.S. fans has to be captain Carlos Bocanegra. The fact that the soon-to-be 34-year-old defender can't get a game at the moment for Racing Santander - currently hovering just above the relegation places in Spain's second division - is troubling, and points towards a rapid end-of-career decline for a player who has been a back line fixture for a decade. But with few alternative options and the partnership of Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez looking lost against Honduras, Boca remains in the squad - for now. Understudy Omar Gonzalez should improve with time, and Michael Parkhurst is a viable option, although he's having trouble getting off the Augsburg bench right now. Steve Cherundolo takes the other right back spot due to his wealth of experience and the lack of a serious contender for the role.
In the middle of the park, Danny Williams is a Bundesliga starter and could be a key player for the U.S. in the coming cycle.
The MLS season is young, but Graham Zusi's opening week showing against Philadelphia, in which he scored a goal and had two assists, indicates he may be ready for a step up.
Brad Guzan is more than the deputy now. Against Costa Rica and Mexico, he'll have a chance to prove himself and maybe stake his claim for the starting job, a role he earned at Aston Villa this season, proving one of the club's few bright spots. The next month will be a big one for him.
In The Departure Lounge
Whew, it's crowded in here. Coming from MLS, you've got lots of guys on the bubble. Brad Davis and Brad Evans' chances will depend largely on their club form. Benny Feilhaber is in the mix, and looking like a better fit in KC than he was in New England. Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman is still a solid backup option.
For an MLS dark horse, don't be shocked to see Philadelphia's Amobi Okugo in the mix, or at least the Gold Cup. Although he only celebrated his 22nd birthday on Wednesday, the natural defensive midfielder has won a spot in the center of Philadelphia's defense and has all the tools - smarts, composure on the ball, defensive acumen - that Jurgen Klinsmann looks for in a defender.
For the moment, experience and his status as the league's best shot-stopper give Nick Rimando the edge on the last keeper's spot, above younger MLS colleagues Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson.
Going south of the border, Joe Corona and Jose Torres are options if the U.S. needs some creativity in midfield, as is Sacha Kljestan, whose Anderlecht resume keeps looking more and more impressive. Edgar Castillo is an option at left back, and Michael Orozco-Fiscal has become something of a national team phoenix, his USA career rising from the ashes just as you think he's been forgotten.
Looking to Europe, Maurice Edu can still play his way back into contention if his loan to Bursaspor is more fruitful than his short spell with Stoke has been so far. Brek Shea has displayed glimpses of his talent in a Stoke City shirt and plays a role in which the U.S. hasn't produced many players recently, while his competition, speedster Joshua Gatt and playmaker Mikkel Diskerud, are establishing themselves as first team players in Scanindavia. Stuart Holden has made some god steps on his road to recovery and has plenty of time to force his way back into the conversation. Aston Villa fullback Eric Lichaj is at a point in his career where he needs first team minutes, lest he risk becoming another Jonathan Spector or Frank Simek. Terrence Boyd is putting together a good scoring record for Rapid Vienna, but may need to move to a bigger stage to force his way into Klinsmann's thoughts.
Waiting By The Phone
There are always a few veterans ready to step in should disaster strike. Brad Friedel has already offered to come out of international retirement should Howard and Guzan both be unavailable. Oguchi Onyewu and DaMarcus Beasley are still playing in good leagues, and there are worse emergency options than Chris Wondolowski should the strikers all pull up lame. And if Jonathan Bornstein ever forces his way off the Tigres bench, or more likely, moves back to MLS, the left back options aren't so deep he can't spring a surprise if given a shot.
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): Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Maurice Edu, Benny Feilhaber, Graham Zusi, Sacha Kljestan
FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson