By Paul Kennedy, Ridge Mahoney & Mike Woitalla
That sound you heard across the country late last Wednesday night and early Thursday morning was that of everyone tearing up the pieces of paper with their list of 23 U.S. national team players for the World Cup.
The takeaways from the USA-Mexico match are that competition is tight and getting tighter for several spots, and Coach Jurgen Klinsmann will wait until the May training camp and the friendlies against Azerbaijan and Turkey to reduce his squad down from 30 players to 23.
Soccer America's editors are in general agreement -- emphasis on general -- on 20 of the 23 players Klinsmann will take to Brazil. It's the other three players who are huge question marks.
U.S. World Cup Squad (20 players):
Goalkeepers:Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Nick Rimando.
Defenders: LB DaMarcus Beasley, CB Matt Besler, RB/CB/CM Geoff Cameron, CB Omar Gonzalez, CB Clarence Goodson, RB/LB Michael Parkhurst.
Midfielders: CM Kyle Beckerman, RM Alejandro Bedoya, LM/LB/RB Fabian Johnson, CM Jermaine Jones, CM Michael Bradley, RM Graham Zusi.
Forwards:F Jozy Altidore, F Clint Dempsey, F/RM/LM Landon Donovan, F Aron Johannsson, F/RM/LM Eddie Johnson.
Here's how we think the rest of the roster will shake out ...
PAUL KENNEDY: Klinsmann's so-called "spine" -- Howard, Jones, Bradley, Dempsey, Altidore -- is about all you can say for sure will be starting, with the possible exception of Besler and Fabian Johnson. In the case of the latter, figuring out where he'll play -- right back, left back or left mid -- will go a long way toward determining who else might start and where Klinsmann will need more cover with his final three picks.
First he'll have to see about the health of several players, most notably, Brad Evans -- not looking great at the moment -- and Donovan. Klinsmann might decide that Donovan's best role is off the bench like we saw against Mexico. After the USA-Mexico game, it is no longer guaranteed that Gonzalez, the other Galaxy player on the national team, will start either. Besides Fabian Johnson, the other multipositional player whose role must be nailed down is Cameron. If you're picking the 11 best players and putting them out on the field somewhere, Cameron belongs but just where? I'd make a case for holding mid, but there's no way Klinsmann starts the World Cup without Jones, if healthy, on the field.
Here are the battles for the final three spots, all of which will be decided based on how players look at the May camp, which means current form may trump sentiment.
Evans vs. DeAndre Yedlin at right back. Yes, Tony Beltran got the start over Yedlin against Mexico, and yes, Yedlin's inexperience (see Portland game) hurts, more so because of the shaky play in the middle of the backline, but Yedlin's upside (see Portland game) will come through every day at practice. I'd go with Yedlin but I doubt Klinsmann will take him. More likely, he might put Fabian Johnson at right back, in which case taking some like Brad Davis as an extra left-footed player may be necessary.
Maurice Edu vs. Mix Diskerud. Diskerud is a player I've assumed will be going to the World Cup, and he may very well still make the 23. He has done nothing to take himself out of contention. But Edu's reemergence gives Klinsmann cover at two spots -- defensive mid and center back -- he needs help. Edu is a tough call.
Julian Green (assuming his shoulder is OK) vs. Davis. If Green is good enough to practice with the first team at Bayern, he's good enough to shine in practice with the national team. Green's performance against Mexico was certainly imperfect, but you could see glimpses of what he can do. If Klinsmann needs a 20-minute spark off the bench in the heat of Brazil, who does he go with? I could very well see Klinsmann going with Donovan and Green as his supersubs. Davis (who was hurt in Houston's game against FC Dallas) could still go (see above).
Final comments: Don't count out Chris Wondolowski. I could see him sneaking in the final 23 at the expense of someone on the list of 20, either a player who gets injured or even Eddie Johnson. Johnson has held a clear edge on Wondo, coming through time and again for Klinsmann, but strictly based on Wednesday night's game, Wondo may have gained an edge. For a long shot in midfield: Joe Corona, who has recovered from a crummy second half of 2013 to have a very good spring at Tijuana.
RIDGE MAHONEY: First of all, getting to a “final three” on the U.S. World Cup roster has been much like the annual scrap amongst 68 teams to reach the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four: traditional mainstays have fallen, upstarts have emerged, and those who believed a year or two ago that Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Herculez Gomez, Stuart Holden and Jose Torres were locks have been rudely reminded of just how ruthless the process can be.
The versatility mantra preached by Klinsmann may not necessarily sway his decisions for the tail end of the roster. There’s already lot of versatility, some of it by his decree: otherwise, Beasley would be at left mid, where he’s played for most of his career, and not at left back. Brad Evans seldom plays right back except for the USA. Cameron is a right back for Stoke City but has rarely played there for Klinsmann.
Our list only includes six defenders, which would seem to be too few, yet Fabian Johnson has played well at outside back where there’s already cover with Parkhurst. Only if Klinsmann has deep concern for his centerback starters, which he should, is there any real hope for John Brooks or for that matter Michael Orozco or 2010 World Cup vet Oguchi Onyewu (both injured over the weekend).
Bradley, Jones, and Beckerman give Klinsmann three central midfield options, which could squeeze out Maurice Edu. The wings can be covered by Donovan, Zusi and Bedoya, who would be the one trimmed if other needs are more pressing. Eddie Johnson has played wide in midfield as well, and nobody on the team can match his blend of power and pace. If Klinsmann believes his pricklish ego can handle a long training camp and intense World Cup pressures, he’s a risk you have to take, and not necessarily off the bench.
What will Klinsmann look for to fill specific areas? Nobody is expecting both Chris Wondolowski and Julian Green to make the squad, but they bring valuable yet radically different attributes.
Wondo is comfortable and dangerous anywhere in the final third, and despite his national team struggles -- no goals in his first nine games -- he can score from just about any reasonable angle or distance. He can play the joker, a player summoned off the bench to score a goal and a role so valued in the German Bundesliga that such players are regularly classified and ranked.
If Wondo is the joker, Green is a wild card, a virtual unknown at senior level yet on this squad most likely to be taken to Brazil as an "X" factor. If there’s a pressing need at another position, he’s a luxury and probably doesn’t go, but to be wooed and debuted at this stage is to be considered now, not eventually.
Another creative spark would be nice. Benny Feilhaber performed this role in 2010 and though he’s been called upon occasionally by Klinsmann, Mix Diskerud has the upper hand over him along with Joe Corona and Torres. He’s skilled and shrewd, yet since coming into the national team has greatly improved his defensive abilities. Though Edu can play more positions and has World Cup experience, Diskerud brings more game.
My final three, in order, with also-rans also listed: 1. Diskerud. 2. Green. 3. Wondolowski. 4. Edu. 5. Evans. 6. Orozco.
MIKE WOITALLA: Ten of the 20 players we consider near shoo-ins are 30 or older, and only two -- Altidore (24) and Johannsson (23) -- are under 25. But when Klinsmann decides on his final 23, his squad may well get an injection of youth.
The USA desperately needs an attacker with dribbling skills to unhinge opponents. Though virtually untested, the 18-year-old Julian Green will make the squad if he convinces Klinsmann he can provide that dynamic.
The speed and desire to attack of 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin make him an attractive option for a team whose outside backs must be able create offense. If Klinsmann trusts Yedlin's defensive competence, the kid could earn a ticket to Brazil.
Mix Diskerud, who has 23 caps and two goals under his belt at age 23, complements his midfield stamina with a knack for creating opportunities, as demonstrated when he set up with a nice bit of skill Donovan's goal in the 2-0 qualifying win over Mexico.
Diskerud is the most likely of the trio to earn a spot, while Green and Yedlin -- who must beat out Brad Evans and Tony Beltran -- have to really impress in the final training camp and friendlies.
For his part, Klinsmann's toughest call may be on Chris Wondolowski, a non-factor in World Cup qualifying but the USA's highest scorer of the last year.