Back in March, Bruce Arena must have thought someone was playing a joke on him. Injury after injury chipped away at his U.S. national team squad ahead of a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers, testing the roster's depth all over the field.
Now, two months later, Arena's U.S. player pool is as healthy as he could have hoped. Jermaine Jones is the only regular unavailable due to injury, and you could argue he may not have been a lock to play even if he were healthy. Sure, Arena probably wishes Sebastian Lletget weren't injured, but if the U.S. can avoid any major knocks in camp, the coach will go into June's qualifiers feeling good about having multiple options at a variety of positions.
He is going to need it. With the qualifier against Mexico coming just three days after the one against Trinidad and Tobago — and given the fact there are five players a yellow card away from suspension — Arena will be digging deep for assistance, much like he did in March.
Here are some thoughts on the roster, and questions that will need to be answered in the upcoming camp:
THE CENTER BACK BATTLE WILL BE FIERCE
You have to go back a long way, perhaps as far back as Arena's first term as U.S. coach, to find a group with as deep a selection of quality center back options. A total of six central defenders are in the squad, and of them four are World Cup veterans, a fifth (Tim Ream) is coming off a strong season at Fulham, and the least experienced of the bunch — Matt Hedges — is the reigning MLS Defender of the Year.
The battle is likely to boil down to three serious contenders for two starting spots, with Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and Omar Gonzalez the front-runners. Brooks is the best left-footed option of the bunch, and is coming off another good season with Hertha Berlin. Gonzalez just had what may have been the best season of his career, winning a Liga MX title last winter and a CONCACAF Champions League this year. Cameron overcame a lengthy injury layoff, but also spent most of the past club season for Stoke City playing in a defensive midfield role.
A Cameron-Brooks pairing makes sense, but given Gonzalez's form, and Arena's lengthy history with him during their time with the LA Galaxy, you have to think Arena wants Gonzalez on the field. The easiest option would be to shift Cameron into a defensive midfield role, where he could prove vital against Mexico's dangerous attack.
WHO REPLACES JERMAINE JONES?
The better question is whether Arena really needs to replace Jones at all. Given the forward options available, Arena can go with a 4-4-2 like he used against Honduras, which would mean Christian Pulisic as the playmaker and Michael Bradley as the defensive midfielder. Wide midfield slots for Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson would make sense.
That sort of attack-minded lineup makes sense at home, but Arena will want a more defensively solid setup for the trip to Estadio Azteca. That is where he will miss Jones' toughness and experience. Cameron makes plenty of sense in a defensive midfield role next to Michael Bradley, but if Arena decides he needs Cameron in central defense it will leave a wide-open contest for a starting central midfield role.
Kellyn Acosta is a talented young midfielder blossoming with FC Dallas this year, while Dax McCarty has more experience and has been one of the best midfielders in MLS this season. Would Arena hand one of them a starting role against Mexico? Or might he turn to a player like Alejandro Bedoya as a more box-to-box midfield presence?
SORTING OUT THE FULLBACK SPOTS
DeAndre Yedlin and Timmy Chandler are coming off outstanding club seasons, and if you based their national team status on club form they would be easy picks as your starting fullbacks. Things aren't so simple, though. For one, Chandler spent all season playing as a right wing back, so even though he has experience at left back, he hasn't played there all year.
Arena is a big fan of Jorge Villafana, and made him the starting left back for the March qualifiers — even though he wasn't a starter for Santos Laguna at the time. Villafana carried the momentum from his national team starts into a regular role with the club, as he rattled off eight straight starts for the Liga MX side.
DaMarcus Beasley's inclusion was a bit of a surprise given he's just turned 35, but his experience and locker room presence make him more valuable than your average bench option. Graham Zusi has settled into a right back role with Sporting Kansas City after Arena gave him a run there in the January camp, and you could argue the former midfielder has been the best right back in MLS, or at least one of the best. That being said, he is still probably a third-choice option behind Yedlin and Chandler.
HOW WILL THE FORWARDS STACK UP?
U.S. fans have been waiting for the chance to see the Jozy Altidore-Bobby Wood tandem play together again, but Wood missed the March qualifiers due to injury. The question now is just how healthy is Wood? Reports of persistent knee issues he was battling down the stretch of the Bundesliga season make you wonder just how strong an option he is at this point.
Arena had to be happy with what he saw from Clint Dempsey in the March qualifiers, and should have no qualms with continuing to start him. Dempsey was excellent in Marc, but has struggled with consistency in the weeks since with the Seattle Sounders. Keeping him off the field for big qualifiers, especially the trip to Mexico City, will be very tough. But it might be asking a lot to expect him to play big minutes in qualifiers just three days apart.
And what of Jordan Morris? He's a perfect speed option off the bench, the kind of change-of-pace threat who can unsettle a tired defense.
SPARE A THOUGHT FOR THOSE WHO MISSED OUT
Calling a total of 27 players meant fewer omissions from this camp that could be considered real snubs, but there were still a handful of players who may have surprised a few people because of their absences.
Sacha Kljestan is one, given the fact he has been one of the best playmakers in MLS for the past few years. The reality is he hasn't been in his best form this year and he's now sitting third — at best — in the playmaker pecking order behind Pulisic and Dempsey. You could argue Nagbe would get a look before Kljestan as things stand right now.
A pair of left backs had good cases for a look in Eric Lichaj and Greg Garza. Lichaj had a good season with Nottingham Forest while Garza has played well for Atlanta United. You have to think one of them would have earned the call if Arena hadn't called in Beasley. The pair should be options for the Gold Cup in July.
The same could be said for some other fringe options, such as Walker Zimmerman, depending on how bad the injury he picked up Sunday turns out to be, and Cristian Roldan. Club Tijuana midfielder Joe Corona and Reading midfielder Danny Williams also had good club seasons and should be in the conversation come Gold Cup time, though you wonder if Arena might use the tournament to take a longer look at some younger central midfield prospects, like Acosta and Roldan.
Gyasi Zardes has returned from his long injury layoff but has struggled to find his form with the LA Galaxy. He is a very good candidate for the Gold Cup, assuming he can regain his top form in the next two months.