By Paul Kennedy
One thing has become very apparent about the U.S. national team during this World Cup 2014 qualifying cycle: it pays to be flexible.
Brad Evans, hero of the 2-1 win over Jamaica on Friday, is an extreme example.
Says Sigi Schmid, his coach with the U.S. under-20 national team, Columbus Crew and now Seattle Sounders, "I've played Brad at center forward. I've played Brad at center back. I've played him at right midfield, left midfield, central midfield and outside back."
It's there, on the right side, that Evans has started the last two games and should start on Tuesday against Panama in World Cup qualifying.
Except for a few games during one of his long stints in England, Eddie Johnson has been a forward all his career, but there are few opportunities on the national team, which usually plays with one forward -- and that's Jozy Altidore.
Playing on the outside was something Johnson and Schmid talked about when he returned to MLS with the Sounders in 2012. "When he came to us," says Schmid, "he said, "Hey, I can play on the outside, but it's a lot of running, coach."
That attitude might not have kept Johnson out of the lineup with the Sounders, but he wasn't going to last long on the national team after getting called up by Jurgen Klinsmann if he wasn't willing to play anywhere.
"When he got the callup with Jurgen to come into the national team," says Schmid, "one of the things we talked about is you have to do whatever he asks you to do. It's your opportunity, and you don't want to say you can't do this, you can't do that, and take away a chance for yourself to get back into the mix."
Johnson led the USA to a key 2-1 win at Antigua & Barbuda with a pair of goals and has been in the mix ever since.
Young Joe Corona knows flexibility is his best chance of breaking into the starting lineup. Certainly, it's been a long wait.
He's the only field player currently with the team who hasn't played for the national team in 2013, and he played 26 minutes in three brief appearances in 2012 -- one minute in the 3-1 win over Guatemala in October cap-tied him to the USA -- after getting called up following a strong showing on the U.S. under-23 national team in Olympic qualifying.
He started out at right midfield for Mexican club Tijuana. He enjoyed his greatest success after moving into the central midfield, starting on Xolos' Liga MX Apertura championship team and throughout their first Libertadores Cup campaign that took them to the quarterfinals, but he now could get his first start for the USA back at right midfield in place of Graham Zusi, who is suspended for Tuesday's game.
"When I first started playing with Xolos, that was my position," says Corona. "Then I was moved into the middle, but I am familiar with that position. I am comfortable."
The second youngest player on the team at the age of 22, Corona says he hasn't received any specific guidance from the U.S. coaching staff if he plays against Panama.
"I'll give my all, run, defend, play with my heart," he says. "I'm just waiting for the opportunity."
He thinks his play with Xolos got the attention of the national team coaches and accelerated his development.
"I still have a lot to learn a lot of thing," he said. "I'm young and learning every day. But I'm very mature on the field and learned ways to get around."
Corona hasn't had an extended break in more than a year -- not that he's complaining.
He came back from last June's set of national team games right into Xolos' preseason training camp in Mazatlan in mid-June and played 39 games in league play (regular season and playoffs) and the Libertadores Cup. Participation in the Libertadores Cup meant Xolos' spring season extended almost four weeks after they wrapped up league play.
"I've had no vacation at all," he says. "But I'm happy to be here. Anybody would give anything to be a part of this as opposed to be on vacation."