By Ridge Mahoney
Since Jurgen Klinsmann took over the U.S. national team nearly two years ago, he’s run through many formations and dozens of players, but as is the case for most current teams, he deploys six players in front of a back four.
The U.S. has ostensibly played 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-1-2-1-2 and 4-5-1 alignments, yet the roles can be more simply boiled down once defenders are removed. No matter how it looks on the field, the Americans are assigned the roles of a typical 4-4-2.
Despite impassioned claims from fans and certain pundits, the U.S. seldom designates a traditional No. 10 -- rather, the attacking and holding burdens are shared to varying degrees by the central midfielders, and offensive impetus is supplied by the flank players as well as the man in “the hole” behind a lone striker.
After a recent run of five games – two friendlies and three Hexagonal qualifiers – numerous players cemented their places in the regular rotation, though a few – noted below – are ranked in more than one position.
The upcoming Gold Cup will raise or drop the stock of perhaps a dozen others, and of course, the greatest question is how Landon Donovan will fare in his first national team appearances since an historic 1-0 defeat of Mexico in August. Players like Danny Williams are still in the mix, as well.
Since many of these players have seldom appeared for Klinsmann, categorizing them in a few cases has been a blend of limited national team experience and club data. There could be significant reshuffling once the Gold Cup plays out, and the future prospects for players all along the spectrum could be drastically altered by what happens between now and the end of July, by which time the Americans hope to be crowned regional champions for the first time since 2007.
1. Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
2. Landon Donovan* (Los Angeles Galaxy)
3. Eddie Johnson(Seattle Sounders)
4. Alejandro Bedoya* (Helsingborg/SWE)
5. Josh Gatt* (Molde/NOR)
Much debate has focused on whether Zusi has already replaced Donovan in the starting lineup, but it’s quite likely Klinsmann will find a way to incorporate both if Donovan can cut it. Zusi set the bar high by consistently delivering good workrate, brazen dribbles, sharp passes, dangerous crosses and accurate set pieces.
All of that sounds a lot like Donovan, who also brings his pedigree as the U.S. all-time goalscorer (49) and the anaerobic capacity to maintain high rates of speed at more frequent intervals and for longer periods than most mortals. Yet that was Donovan pre-2013. The Donovan of the present has fallen short of that standard, though he buzzed around impressively in the LA Galaxy's 3-2 loss to his former Quakes Saturday night at Stanford.
Johnson found a home at left mid for Klinsmann, then started on the right June 11 against Panama. He’s grafted some guile into his pace and power and though the finishing could be crisper, he iced that game by collecting a long pass and cleanly smacking it past the keeper.
Bedoya has been in and out of the national-team picture since debuting in 2010. Skilled and clever, he’s played up top, out wide, and in the hole for Helsingborg, with which he signed last August and is having a great 2013 season. Gatt debuted for the senior team against Russia last November and the speed he shows for Molde has yet to surface for the USA.
This is a spot where Williams, who started the Hexagonal as the starting holding midfielder, might re-emerge in the fall.
1. Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04/GER)
2. Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG)
3. Kyle Beckerman* (Real Salt Lake)
4. Maurice Edu (Stoke City/ENG)
5. Jose Torres* (Tigres/MEX)
An enforcer prone to rash tackles and yellow cards, Jones has shown more discipline as well as a knack for incisive pass. Such ability in central midfield is demanded by most of the Bundesliga’s top teams. He came back from a concussion suffered against Jamaica to play well in spurts against Honduras, but still mixed sharp passes with aimless ones, and giveaways rescued by strong tackles. He's clearly Klinsmann's first choice and fans have to hope his good moments override the scary ones.
Cameron’s exemplary work in relief of Jones against Jamaica and Panama boosted his stock another few notches. His confidence on the ball sometimes leads to ambitious passes and that has to be monitored, but he tackles strongly and covers a fair amount of ground. Beckerman is among the best in MLS at this position and though his second touch and decisions can be faulted, his workrate and determination are unquestioned. He’s also a Klinsmann favorite.
Edu played a dozen games on loan to Turkish club Bursaspor last season, but missed the June qualifiers after suffering a sports hernia, and he isn’t in the Gold Cup squad. His status will be unclear at least until the Hexagonal resumes in September. Torres, a linking midfielder at Pachuca, started 15 straight games during Tigres’ run to the Clausura regular-season title. But where does he fit for the USA?
1. Michael Bradley (Roma/ITA)
2. Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/BEL)
3. Stuart Holden* (Bolton/ENG)
4. Joe Corona* (Tijuana/MEX)
5. Mix Diskerud* (Rosenborg/NOR)
Bradley is the alpha dog in midfield, and Klinsmann will get a good look at life without him in the Gold Cup. Kljestan is a solid contributor for Anderlecht; his U.S. showings have been okay, and can also fill the holding role while looking for openings to get forward. But he's by no means a lock for Brazil 2014 despite his European experience.
Holden hadn’t been seen in a USA shirt since 2010 until his recall in May, and could be tried on either side of midfield as well as in the middle. In coaches’ parlance, he’s got a great engine, which combined with quick feet and sharp eyes constitutes a valuable player. But he’s still on a long road back from two lengthy injury layoffs.
Corona and Diskerud are cut from different molds yet both can play combinations through packed defenses and beat defenders one-v-one. This long stint under Klinsmann might well define their status during the next 11 months.
1. Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/GER)
2. Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
3. Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo)
4. Edgar Castillo* (Tijuana/MEX)
5. Brek Shea (Stoke City/ENG)
With Fabian Johnson on the left side, either at left back or in midfield, the USA just looks better. He’s got a good sense of flank defending and as Jozy Altidore can attest, is more than capable of setting up a goal. There’s lots of room to improve but his future is bright.
Eddie Johnson might be miscast in midfield yet he’s been effective if, understandably, defensively inconsistent. Opposing teams worry about him, case closed. Davis has a great left foot as well as the acumen and confidence to slide inside; the Gold Cup will be a good test of his consistency in escalating conditions if he's recalled for the final stage.
Castillo has the freedom to float forward when he plays left back for Xolos, but he’s not a reliable defender, so his speed and skill are better suited at left mid for the U.S. Shea’s recovery from a broken sesamoid bone has set him back since he started regularly early in Klinsmann’s tenure.
1. Clint Dempsey (Tottenham/ENG)
2. Landon Donovan* (Los Angeles Galaxy)
3. Chris Wondolowski* (San Jose Earthquakes)
4. Jack McInerney* (Philadelphia Union)
5. Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)
Dempsey is the go-to attacker, a goalscorer and setup man in the same package. Installed in the hole and afforded the freedom to cut apart opposing back lines with and without the ball, he’s been instrumental in the U.S. takeover of the Hexagonal lead. As long as opposing teams collapse on him and chase his dummy runs, the U.S. attack will benefit. He draws fouls, scores goals and hits great final passes.
Donovan has ample time to regain his national team place, and likely will be used in different spots during the Gold Cup. Wondolowski has great balance and vision as well as a knack for goal, but his finishing in a U.S. shirt just hasn’t been good enough. McInerney ain’t a kid any more; he turns 21 next month and with four pro seasons and 22 goals, he’s getting this test at a good time. Agudelo has been given a fresh start, again, with the Revs and has scored three goals in five games, but wasn’t named to the 35-man preliminary Gold Cup roster as Klinsmann says he still needs to be more consistent.
1. Jozy Altidore(AZ/NED)
2. Herculez Gomez*(Tijuana/MEX)
3. Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)
4. Terrence Boyd(Rapid Vienna/AUT)
5. Will Bruin*(Houston Dynamo)
What happens when you score a lot of goals for a smallish club and knock in a few for your country as well? You get noticed by a bigger club, and in the case of Altidore – who has scored in four straight internationals to tie a U.S. record – there’s interest from Sunderland. You also confirm the belief in you shown by teammates and coaches, and refute the opinions of those who focus solely on the scoresheet and ignore attributes such as size, strength, fortitude, and commitment.
Gomez came into camp injured and didn’t play in any of the last five U.S. games. He left the team early to rehab as his move from Puebla to TJ was finalized. Like Eddie Johnson, he can slash through the channels and provide a speedy option for balls played over the top. Back in for the Gold Cup, he can re-establish his spot in the squad with goals and solid performances.
Boyd came on as a sub in the 81st minute against Belgium and Germany. His 13 goals for Rapid Vienna last season helped it to a third-place finish and a spot in the Europa League, so he’s likely to be called back for the next Hexagonal phases. In the meantime, Bruin can raise his stock in the Gold Cup, though after netting 12 goals for the Dynamo last season he’s tallied just four so far in 2013.
Note: Players marked with an asterisk were named to the 23-player Gold Cup roster.