Jozy Altidore may not be scoring goals for Sunderland, but as we stand 12 weeks from the World Cup opener, he still projects as the lead striker in the USA World Cup XI.
Selecting the actual 23-man roster for the World Cup will present its own challenges for Klinsmann, especially with the addition of Green to the equation, but of greater concern for U.S. fans is which players Klinsmann will actually give starting roles too.
You would think the picture of Klinsmann’s preferred starting lineup would be much more clear than it actually is, but there are several questions left to be answered between now and the opening whistle in Natal.
The fullback positions remain question marks, as do the wide midfield roles, and we are left wondering just how much faith Klinsmann has in the Matt Besler-Omar Gonzalez partnership, particularly with the pair not starting off the MLS season in the most impressive fashion.
Then you have Aron Johannsson, who is scoring goals like no other U.S. player on the planet, but who still looks very much like someone destined for a reserve role in Brazil, at least in the beginning.
So what lineup will Klinsmann turn to in June to kick off the World Cup? Here is a closer look at a projected lineup, and how the leading candidates shape up less than three months before the start of the tournament in Brazil:
Tim Howard remains the starter and one of the first names on the team sheet. Brad Guzan is a worthy number two, but isn’t close to challenging Howard’s hold on the top spot.
Geoff Cameron has edged past Brad Evans in the race for right back, though you still get the sense that Klinsmann isn’t sold on him being a better option there than Brad Evans (though Evans’ recent national team performances should have helped sell him).
The central defense pairing of Besler and Gonzalez has been groomed to be the tandem, and it was just a year ago when they were first unveiled as a duo in Mexico City. The issue with looking at alternatives is that none have emerged to make real challenges. Oguchi Onyewu and John Brooks flubbed their chances to impress in the friendly loss to Ukraine while Clarence Goodson has struggled to stay healthy. At this point, Klinsmann appears ready to sink or swim with Besler and Gonzalez.
The left back spot is a bit of a question mark because DaMarcus Beasley showed himself to be a viable option at the position during World Cup qualifying. That said, is he better than Fabian Johnson as a left back? Klinsmann’s use of Johnson in a left wing role in a recent friendly suggests he is ready to commit to Beasley and use Johnson in a more advanced position.
Michael Bradley is the first name you write into the midfield. That has been the case for some time and, based on his early form for Toronto FC, that isn’t going to change any time soon.
Jermaine Jones has long been a player Jurgen Klinsmann rates highly, particularly against top competition. His experience at the highest level, as well as his toughness, is something Klinsmann wants on the field. Jones will be especially important against an imposing Ghana midfield. Right now, if anything happened to Jones, Kyle Beckerman would more than likely get a starting nod.
Klinsmann’s affinity for the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 leaves Clint Dempsey in the playmaking role, and while he hasn’t shown his best in a national team uniform in almost two years, Dempsey is not in danger of losing his starting job.
The race for the wide midfield/forward roles in the 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 is wide open. Landon Donovan is a good bet to lock down one of the spots, but a wealth of options keep him from being a stone-cold lock. Graham Zusi has shown well in 2013, and will be a serious challenger for a wide spot.
The same can be said for Alejandro Bedoya and Johannsson, who are both clear options for Klinsmann. But don’t be surprised if Zusi, Bedoya and Johannsson are all passed over for Fabian Johnson. He has shown an ability to not only combine well with Jozy Altidore, but also to connect with Beasley on the left flank. A Johnson-Beasley left flank would give the Americans speed an an ability to interchange that must surely appeal to Klinsmann.
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How does a player who hasn’t scored a goal in 2014 still get penciled into a starting forward role for the national team? It’s pretty simple. Klinsmann does not have a short memory and he also understands that struggling in a top league like the English Premier League doesn’t suddenly change the fact he was a dominant force in 2013 for the national team, and was scoring goals at will in the Netherlands before his transfer to Sunderland.
Altidore is also the type of physical force who can provide a strong target forward in the system Klinsmann prefers. This is where Johannsson is in a bit of a no-man’s land at the moment. He isn’t really suited to be a target forward on the international level, but he’s also not an ideal wide option either due to the heavy two-way responsibilities that position can bring. Until Klinsmann shows a willingness to consider a 4-4-2 as a primary formation, Johannsson looks likely to be limited to a reserve role, though it seems a safe bet that he starts at least one match at the World Cup given his current goal-scoring form.
This projected lineup would lack experience in central defense, but would boast some good speed on the wings and experience in midfield. A Johnson-Dempsey-Donovan attacking trio just might be able to provide Altidore with the service he needs to get going, while also having the speed and work rate to assist the U.S. fullbacks in keeping opposing wingers honest.
Is this lineup good enough to help the Americans survive the Group of Death? There are too many question marks surrounding the team right now to say for sure, but next week’s USA-Mexico friendly, and the May pre-World Cup friendlies, should help us get a better picture of just what sort of shape Klinsmann’s top-choice options are in as we draw closer to the World Cup.