Jurgen Klinsmann has spent nearly two years surveying his player pool for a top-choice XI, and it is starting to take shape as the next World Cup qualifiers approach.
In Klinsmann's 22 months in charge of the U.S. national team, he has regularly used different lineups, experimented with different tactics, dropped established players, made unpopular choices, taken risks on inexperienced players and played certain players out of their typical positions. All of that was done in the hopes of scouring thoroughly through his options and settling on the right starting group.
On any team, in any sport, roles have to be defined for a squad to operate at its full potential. That's not to say that things have to always remain the same, but it goes a long way for every player to know his objective when walking into a stadium.
The USA's 4-2 loss to Belgium and 4-3 victory over Germany this past week proved to be useful exercises in that the Americans came away from the latter friendly with confidence while also getting a greater sense over the course of both games for who truly belongs where. After being able to examine his myriad of options, and with the dust settling as the next three World Cup qualifying matches approach, Klinsmann's tiers of players are finally taking a true form.
One of the hallmarks of the Klinsmann era has been the unpredictability of who will be taking the field. Klinsmann has attempted to foster an environment of continuity and chemistry, but en route to doing that he has turned to 27 lineup combinations in 27 matches, sometimes making wholesale changes, other times an adjustment here or there.
Not all that long ago, it was unclear which of the numerous central midfield options were the top choices. Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu, Danny Williams and Sacha Kljestan (to a lesser extent) have all gotten run outs, but it has become clear that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have established themselves as the go-to pairing in the center of the park.
The three-man defensive midfield set-up that Klinsmann has tried to use, with one often having to operate as a false winger, failed miserably and resulted in cluttered spacing and an anemic attack. Bradley and Jones, however, have established a comfort level between them in their two-man alignment, with Jones the one granted more freedom to roam forward while the more disciplined Bradley shields the back line, acts as a link between the defense and attack, and looks to keep and win possession.
With more naturally suited wingers like Graham Zusi and Fabian Johnson (and eventually Landon Donovan should he reappear at the first-choice level), there is no confusion among the midfield four as to who should be doing what. Klinsmann may have tried to operate a certain way in the past without taking into account the strengths of his players, but the important thing is that he has found the right combination before it was too late.
Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey are the preferred options to provide attacking clout, and that's no surprise considering the club productivity of both men. Dempsey's place, either roaming in an advanced midfield role between the wingers or pushed even further up the field as a forward, was never in question, but for Altidore, despite his goal-scoring exploits on the club level, his place within the U.S. squad has been a point of contention.
Herculez Gomez and Eddie Johnson had been preferred at various times (heck, even Alan Gordon got a look in a vital qualifier) in the last nine months, but with a confidence-inspiring showing against Germany and a growing understanding of how to work with the freestyling Dempsey, the supremely capable Altidore is emerging from the group of options.
In central defense, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler have provided the best results in the ever-changing competition for the starting roles. The back line as a whole is a continued work in progress, but with Gonzalez appearing entrenched at the position (he is the only one to start the last six games) while playing with a few different partners over the last five months, it would appear that Besler has the leg up on the competition for the second spot. Geoff Cameron (who last fall was a first-choice option alongside jilted captain Carlos Bocanegra) and Clarence Goodson appear on the outside of the starting XI looking in.
There remains questions at full back, where Brad Evans suddenly emerged as a viable option against Germany at right back and DaMarcus Beasley is tenuously holding onto a place on the left. With the uncertainty surrounding Timmy Chandler (who was last seen in a U.S. jersey being completely overwhelmed in Honduras) and veteran Steve Cherundolo, there are decisions to be made prior to a set back four being established. Finding that cohesive group in front of goalkeeper Tim Howard is the final piece of the lineup puzzle and has to be a top priority with meaningful games on the horizon.
If Klinsmann has shown anything in his time as U.S. boss, it's that his selections are very much subject to change, and obviously injuries and suspensions will dictate plenty of decisions and the depth chart throughout a tournament or qualifying process. But recent showings have indicated that his lengthy quest to provide stable chemistry and consistency on the field is, at long last, approaching its conclusion.