[USA MEN]This will not be a World Cup at which European-based players dominate the U.S. national team. Indeed, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmannheads into Wednesday's game against Ukraine in Cyprus with lots of questions about his mostly European-based players, not least of which is the form of three key players in the middle of what he terms the spine of the team.
How does the spine look?
Klinsmann calls Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore -- back to front -- the spine of the national team, but he finds himself in the inconvenient situation of having had all four field players -- Jones, Bradley, Dempsey and Altidore -- change clubs in the last six months -- in the case Dempsey twice as he went from Tottenham to Seattle and then back to London on loan to Fulham.
The upshot of the moves, though, is that Altidore has endured a season-long slump, though at least he is playing -- and playing better in recent weeks. Dempsey hasn't played since Feb. 4 as Fulham has fallen into last place in the EPL, Bradley, transferred from Roma to Toronto FC, hasn't played a competitive match since Dec. 22, and Jones hasn't played since Dec. 21 and hasn't even dressed since his transfer from Schalke 04 to Besiktas.
That's a lot of inactivity Klinsmann will have to take into account as he assesses their performances on Wednesday. Barring some sort of fitness issue, there is no way he doesn't start Dempsey, Bradley and Jones.
Where does Geoff Cameron play?
Of the seven players U.S. Soccer listed as defenders on the roster for the Ukraine game, only Geoff Cameron is a sure bet to go to Brazil. For none of the others are the odds as high as even 50-50. But where Cameron starts if at all at the World Cup remains to be seen. In his last five starts for the USA, he's played at center back three times and at right back and defensive midfield once each.
Cameron's experience would make him a natural choice to marshal the backline from the middle on Wednesday, but Klinsmann will likely want him to play at right back, the position at which he plays for Stoke City and he has the best chance of starting for the USA at the moment.
Where does Fabian Johnson play?
Fabian Johnson is another jack of all trades, used by Hoffenheim at left midfield, left back and now right back, all positions he played at for the USA in the 2013 Hexagonal.
Klinsmann has plenty of options on the wings in midfield against Ukraine, so Johnson will likely start at left back. DaMarcus Beasley, back in Mexico with Puebla, holds the starting job at left back for the moment, but Johnson's best chance of claiming a starting job is, for the moment, at left back.
Who will step up?
Of the 20 players permanently based in Europe and eligible to play in Wednesday, only eight would be considered sure bets to go Brazil: Brad Guzanand Howard in goal, plus Cameron, Johnson, Jones, Altidore, Alejandro Bedoyaand Aron Johannsson. Mix Diskerud is very much in -- well -- the mix, but after that is less than 50-50 for everyone else.
Klinsmann called the game "a huge opportunity" for the European-based players and it will take a huge game from the likes of John Brooks, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea or Terrence Boyd to snatch what must be one or two remaining tickets to the World Cup that have not yet been punched.
GOALKEEPERS (3):Cody Cropper (Southampton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton)
DEFENDERS (7): John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Tijuana), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Oguchi Onyewu (Sheffield Wednesday), Will Packwood (Birmingham City), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers)
MIDFIELDERS (8):Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (Barnsley), Danny Williams (Reading)
FORWARDS (6):Juan Agudelo (Utrecht), Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), Clint Dempsey (Fulham), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Aron Johannsson (AZ).