March wasn’t the best month for U.S. Soccer’s elite men’s teams and thus the plan going forward for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is rife with possibilities.
Had the USA swept Guatemala, Klinsmann might have taken a different approach at the Copa America Centenario in June. It will probably clinch a berth in the Hexagonal anyway when it plays St. Vincent & The Grenadines in its next qualifier, but there’s a final group game against Trinidad & Tobago to consider as a possible audition for players trying to crack the top tier of Hexagonal candidates.
He no longer needs to worry about grooming the U-23s for the Olympic Games after their elimination by Colombia, yet few of them showed enough to merit serious consideration to face Colombia, Costa Rica, and Paraguay in group play. If they are be factors in the Hex, this is the opportunity to test them against solid opposition before risking them against the cream -- such as it is -- of Concacaf in do-or-die matches.
Here’s a rundown of how the 23-man Centenario squad might look, along with other players who will be considered.GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Ethan Horvath.
Now, would Klinsmann elect to keep Howard off the roster and add another veteran, such as Nick Rimando? The head coach always cites current form as a critical factor in his evaluations, but he doesn’t always follow up: he picked Howard for the first game against Guatemala even though the keeper hadn’t played in two months for Everton. Howard looked a bit rusty in Guatemala City but remember he was playing regularly back in October and still Klinsmann opted for Guzan in the Concacaf Cup playoff against Mexico.
Bill Hamid is rehabbing a torn meniscus and thus the door is open for a younger keeper to step through. Both Horvath and Cody Cropper played well for the U-23s in their futile Olympic playoff against Colombia, but Horvath proved to be superior with an excellent performance in the second match. The domestic pool of young MLS goalies doesn’t match up to this pair.
DEFENDERS (8): Matt Besler, Steve Birnbaum, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Brad Evans, Fabian Johnson, Tim Ream, DeAndre Yedlin.
If Klinsmann wants width on the left side of midfield, he can put either Johnson or Brek Shea further up the field and go again at left back with Edgar Castillo, who started both games against Guatemala and rarely was tested. Shea was a regular once Klinsmann took over in 2011 and got his last start against Costa Rica.
A starting slot at left back for Johnson might slice Castillo off the roster, and despite a rough game against Guatemala, if Omar Gonzalez continues his good play for Pachuca he could be on the 23-man squad. But the luxury of a fourth centerback may not suit the coach’s plans, especially if Klinsmann wants to broaden his options in midfield. A lot hinges on what he decides to do at left back, and right back if Yedlin picks up an injury. Ream can play in the middle as well and could thus be the fourth centerback at the expense of Gonzalez. Ream started the last three games of 2015 but has been in and out of the starting lineup for Fulham the past three months.
Klinsmann has yet to select a centerback pairing he prefers, but had Brooks been healthy for the Guatemala series he’d likely have cemented a spot in the starting lineup. His partner could be any one of several, but Besler or Cameron head the list of candidates. The status of Michael Orozco is, as usual, impossible to assess.
(8): Kyle Beckerman, Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Darlington Nagbe, Lee Nguyen, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi.
The inclusion of both Beckerman and Jones would probably preclude the selection of Perry Kitchen, whose winter move to Hearts might move him off the radar screen at least for the time being.
The opposition at the Centenario will be tough, and so starts could be hard to come by for Nguyen and Nagbe unless they are pushed to the flanks in a four- or five-man midfield. Bedoya can play on either side and unless he’s banged up or burned out by the European season Klinsmann will rely on his savvy and skill to break down defenses. Zusi answered the bell as a late call-up for the second Guatemala game and got a nice goal for his trouble. He’s still in the picture and a string of good games for SKC could knock Ethan Finlay out of contention. Finlay started against Iceland and came on very late in the Canada game but played only briefly in the second leg against Guatemala.
It would be a bold move for Klinsmann to roll out a 4-3-3 formation at the Centenario as he did in the second game against Guatemala; against tough opposition, could he risk a midfield triumvirate of Jones, Beckerman and Bradley, and inject Nagbe or Nguyen as attacking subs? Or could Nguyen or Finlay be pushed up top to play on the wing? What role, if any, can Williams play and will he have time to refresh; he's already played 42 games for Reading and the USA since August. He's scored seven goals, including the only U.S. score in the 4-1 loss to Brazil last September.
If Klinsmann still has faith in Mix Diskerud the central slots are even more clogged. Diskerud has a lot more national team experience than Nagbe or Nguyen. But he seems to be a man without a position and could be edged out unless Klinsmann decides to pick either Nagbe or Nguyen and exclude the other
FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes.
Zardes has played mostly midfield for the U.S. and it’s not like Klinsmann is flush with options for the wide slots, so if Zardes is on the squad that bumps off a midfielder. But who gets a slot up front?
Jordan Morris isn’t off to a great start in MLS, and Klinsmann is almost certain to choose Wood, who played on the wing in the 4-3-3 formation deployed in the second game against Guatemala. The fact is, after Altidore and Dempsey, there aren’t a lot of options up top; Aron Johannsson’s injury will sideline him for the rest of the Bundesliga season, and if Klinsmann decides the best option for Morris is to train with Seattle, he could keep Chris Wondolowski in the picture as the most experienced alternative. Rubio Rubin (just returning from injury at FC Utrecht) is a longshot as is Julian Green (who didn't even dress second game of U-23 playoff series).
Against Guatemala, Wood displayed the combativeness needed at this level but he also showed an aversion to rough treatment. He’ll need to sharpen his touch and increase his guile to shine at the Centenario. Otherwise, the U.S. will again have skimpy alternatives other than Altidore and Dempsey to produce goals.