Just about every U.S. fan is anxious to see who will be picked to face Mexico in the Rose Bowl Oct. 10 in the first, and perhaps only, Concacaf Cup and here's one man's plan starting from scratch, not selecting from the designated list of 35 players already submitted to Concacaf.
This is the ultimate test of X's and O's for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, whose results have been in many cases superb but quirky decisions regarding tactics and personnel have called into question his long-term direction.
There's no need here for grooming young players, reshaping the team's identity, and setting a clear path to a future of success and prosperity. Beat Mexico. The rest is just details.
Here are the players, and the reasons they have been chosen, to accomplish that end. The starting back five from the World Cup is restored, Michael Bradley gets a new role and a new central partner, and there's a major change up top.
GOALKEEPER: TIM HOWARD. This isn’t punishment for Brad Guzan’s shaky outing against Jamaica in the Gold Cup finals, or being left-footed, or anything else. In big games -- the 2009 Confederations Cup shutout of Spain and countless Hexagonal qualifiers -- Howard has been the difference between victory and defeat. He knows the foe and his teammates’ faith in him is absolute. In a do-or-die showdown under the brightest lights, that’s what I want.
LEFT BACK: DaMARCUS BEASLEY. I hope the Beas is sharp come Oct. 10. Though his play for the Dynamo hasn’t consistently been up to his high standards, the U.S. desperately needs his speed, experience, confidence and unquenchable spirit. He’s won and lost against Mexico and will relish the chance to stamp one final victory in his lengthy dossier.
LEFT CENTERBACK: MATT BESLER. He’s the smartest, toughest and most tenacious central defender in the U.S. pool and one of its most accurate passers out of the back. He can step into midfield to win entry passes and seldom loses his mark. He’s quick and shrewd enough to cover up for teammates’ mistakes. His long throw-ins are dangerous. After being snubbed several times since the World Cup, he’ll have fire in his belly and a chip on his shoulder.
RIGHT CENTERBACK: GEOFF CAMERON. He’s playing in the middle for Stoke City and is tall enough (6-foot-3) and strong enough to win balls in the air. Though his positional sense in this position is still developing, he’s played enough tough games for club and country to cope with a potent opponent. In short, he’s one of the few Americans currently playing regularly in a challenging league, and this has been a trouble spot for the USA, so he simply must be on the field. He can also slide over to right back in a pinch.
RIGHT BACK: FABIAN JOHNSON. Assuming he and Beasley are both fit and healthy, Johnson will anchor the right side and get forward judiciously against a team that occasionally struggles to regain its shape when the ball turns over. If teammates are moving off the ball, he can find them with early passes to get Mexico into retreat mode, and his one-v-one defensive ability is essential to quelling the myriad attackers he might face.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: SACHA KLJESTAN (not included in 35). I would have called him up for the Peru and Brazil friendlies, along with Benny Feilhaber and a few other guys, and though his record against Mexico isn’t great he’s blossomed into an excellent two-way midfielder. No one ever questioned his vision and passing, and while not a defensive dynamo he can step into tackles and cut off passing lanes. What he doesn’t know about his teammates, he’ll pick up during the training sessions and he’s the ideal component to balance out the attributes of his partner.
CENTRAL MIDFIELDER: MICHAEL BRADLEY. Bradley is going to complement the attack, not direct it, and only someone with his experience and savvy can judge when to push forward and not get caught out by Mexico. One of the Mexicans’ few flaws is that they lose track of players arriving in the box late, which is Bradley’s forte. Yet he’s also going to need a monster game defensively, to clog up the middle and win balls off deflections and double-teams. If he loses the ball it can only be in Mexico’s defensive third.
LEFT MIDFIELDER: ALEJANDRO BEDOYA. He’s played in too many important games not to start against Mexico, and of the European-based players he has the most appropriate skill set for this match. He can hold the ball in wide spots or go past people to stretch the back line and his sense of space and timing will aid greatly the Americans’ combination play. He also has the acumen and tactical discipline to combat opponents that can hit you with pace as well as power
RIGHT MIDFIELDER: GYASI ZARDES. The Galaxy attacker and Bedoya can flip sides, and he’s also capable of playing as a de-facto forward to add another presence in the penalty area. I want the Mexican back line confused about who is coming at them and from which angles, so at times Zardes will push up to a centerback’s shoulder, at other teams he’ll start wide and knife into the middle. He’s also a good target in the air and can be very effective at the near post.
ATTACKING MIDFIELDER. CLINT DEMPSEY. He’s looked sharp and pumped up for Seattle since sitting out the Peru and Brazil friendlies and like Howard and a few others, is at his best in the biggest games. His skill, experience, guile and hunger are irreplaceable and he simply must provide defining, decisive moments if the Americans are to win.
FORWARD. ARON JOHANNSSON. This choice is a major gamble, but the Americans need his sharp dribbles and angled runs to cut around and through Mexico’s defenders. Hopefully, the Bundesliga has tightened up his touch and extracted more power from his shots. He may not be on the ball that much but the gaps he carves open will be exploited by others, especially Dempsey, who thrives on the array of short passes Johannsson can supply.
BRAD GUZAN. He’s a top-class keeper who would start for a lot of national teams. No worries if he has to jump in.
BILL HAMID. Best of the younger bunch.
OMAR GONZALEZ. Not always trustworthy as a starter, Gonzalez is nonetheless tested at the top level.
JOHN BROOKS. There are situations in which he could contribute in a game of this magnitude, such as defending on set plays.
KYLE BECKERMAN. He hasn’t been in the best form this season yet there are so many crucial games on his resume he might be needed.
JERMAINE JONES. If healthy, he’s got a persona of confidence and respect this team needs.
DANNY WILLIAMS. A savvy player who has much room to grow yet has enough experience and ability to handle this assignment.
DeANDRE YEDLIN. Can’t risk him as a starter, his defensive deficiencies are just too glaring, even in midfield. But he’s a perfect option to either run at a tired defense or close down spaces in the final minutes.
MIX DISKERUD. He’s not been as influential offensively for the national team recently as in the past, but his increased range and soft feet keep him in the picture.
BENNY FEILHABER (not included in 35). He’s done more than enough to merit inclusion and in the final minutes might be just the kind of player Mexico won’t be able to stop without fouling.
JOZY ALTIDORE. He’s a big, strong, experienced man who has scored important goals many times over.
JORDAN MORRIS (named to U-23 qualifying roster). I don’t project him to be an immediate superstar when he turns pro but there’s no question he’s not fazed by hard opponents and harsh conditions. And didn't he score against Mexico just a few months ago?