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USA depth offers measure of solace

Leander Schaerlaeckens: USMNT understudies need to step up.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: USMNT understudies need to step up.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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TALENT FOR HIRE

With jobs open in the USA squad, young stars might get their big break.

In a World Cup year, it’s never too early for conjecture. Especially not about who will make the United States men’s national team roster, with its endless wrinkles, variables and considerations. It seems a favorite pastime of the American soccer fan. And with head coach Jurgen Klinsmann remaining stubbornly non-committal on how many of the 23 jobs for Brazil are spoken for, the depth chart certainly seems to change every week as players find and lose playing time and form.

“There are many different elements that play into the roster and therefore the door remains open until the very last day,” Klinsmann told USSoccer.com on Tuesday. "It’s about what happens over the next couple of months." That seems only fair and consistent with the protocol laid down in recent cycles. As you’ll recall, Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle, both several years removed from their last caps, made very late runs at the team in 2010 and found themselves on the plane to South Africa. Just or not, a strong body of work during qualifying or any of the four years preceding the World Cup alone won’t buy you your spot.

But with all of that kept readily in mind, an educated guess at what the roster will look like can be made now, some three months before the World Cup camp assembles. Provided, of course, that you consider the usual caveats: injuries, fatigue and timed runs of hot and cold performance. And assuming that Klinsmann doesn’t shake up the playing style he has consistently employed over the last year -- the 4-5-1 with overlapping backs, two holding midfielders, wingers cutting inside, a target man and an attacking midfielder playing in his shadow.

In the wake of USA's 2-0 friendly win over the Korea Republic, following a January camp for domestic players, a final picture emerges that will grow clearer still on March 5. Klinsmann is expected to bring a mostly European-based side to Ukraine for the final A-team friendly then, while an MLS players-only friendly against Mexico is rumored for early April.

In the interim, there seems no argument at all over who the (mandatory) three goalkeepers will be when the USA travels to their Sao Paulo base in early June ahead of their group stage games with Ghana, Portugal and Germany. Everton’s Tim Howard remains the imperious incumbent. Brad Guzan, who seized the starting job at Aston Villa with aplomb last season, is his steady understudy. Nick Rimando of Real Salt Lake makes for a fine alternative, with his cat-like reflexes and the 13 caps’ worth of experience he has quietly assembled.

AMERICANS OVERSEAS

Want to find out the top performances from US players abroad? See here.

Things grow slightly more complicated in defense. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City, respectively, are the preferred pairing up the middle. They are well matched -- with Gonzalez supplying the aerial might and physicality and Besler the savvy one-on-one defending and distribution of the ball. They are backed up by Clarence Goodson of the San Jose Earthquakes, who bears a strong playing resemblance to Gonzalez. The Columbus Crew’s Michael Parkhurst is probably the second option, for he can play out on the left and right as well; unless Sheffield Wednesday journeyman Oguchi Onyewu or Bolton’s Tim Ream and his splendid long ball suddenly re-emerge.

The right-back race knows many contenders. Brad Evans has played there of late. But he is a central midfielder for the Seattle Sounders and not wholly convincing defensively. Nurnberg’s Timmy Chandler would seem like the best option by far, but he has been out of the picture lately. It’s unclear why -- besides an unusually poor outing during a qualifier in Honduras. Should he be available, however, he would likely edge Evans off the roster. Unless Steve Cherundolo, the wily veteran, finally gets healthy and does it for him. Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron, who can also play in central defense and midfield, is the likely number two, no matter what happens with the starting job.

At left back, Puebla’s DaMarcus Beasley has been retooled from his left wing origins to surprising effect. He’s far from perfect back there, but he does well enough. Since Tijuana’s Edgar Castillo seems to lack the requisite level for the international game, Hoffenheim’s Fabian Johnson, who can also play on the left wing, will probably make the team.

TRAVEL PLANS

Fans and players can now rejoice. USA books World Cup ticket after a long, arduous journey.

Toronto FC’s Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, newly of Besiktas, hold an iron grip on the jobs in central midfield. And while some question if they are too alike in their conservative sensibilities, there is no arguing that both typically inject the American game with necessary physicality and composed passing. Jones’s backup as the more defensive 'number 6' in the system seems to be RSL’s Kyle Beckerman, although Danny Williams of Reading is back in the picture. Behind Bradley in the box-to-box 'number 8' spot, Anderlecht’s Sacha Kljestan seems like the sensible choice if only for his toil and UEFA Champions League experience. That is provided Bolton’s Stuart Holden, a Klinsmann favorite, doesn’t make a miraculous return from the latest in an incessant series of injuries.

On the right wing, Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi seems to have nailed down the job with his tidy passing and threatening crosses. On the left Landon Donovan of the Galaxy, the golden boy who went on a sabbatical, appears to have re-entrenched himself in the starting lineup. Their most likely substitutes look to be Alejandro Bedoya of Nantes and Eddie Johnson of DC United, both of whom can play on either wing while EJ can also play as a target man. If Brek Shea continues to stand out at Barnsley, he could knock Bedoya off the team.

In the hole, captain Clint Dempsey of the Seattle Sounders is an absolute, even if his form has been elusive lately. Donovan is an option here too. And Rosenborg’s Mix Diskerud would seem like the best alternative, since he can also play in the 8 role. Or perhaps Klinsmann takes a flyer on Tijuana’s Joe Corona or RSL’s Luis Gil.

Finally, up top, Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore’s job is set in stone, too. His hold-up play is much needed in the system. AZ Alkmaar's Aron Johannsson will probably be the option off the bench, since he can play on either wing too.

This roster, then, offers a great deal of flexibility, a trait prized by Klinsmann and necessary in such an arduous tournament following the draining European club season many players will be coming off.

Flexibility the Americans will need, after all, owing to that dastardly draw, which pits them against three teams that are better on paper. But the realization that the side as drawn up above is probably the best and deepest ever produced by the United States, should offer some measure of solace.

Leander's selections:

Goalkeeper: Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa) and Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake).

Defenders: Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), Clarence Goodson (San Jose Earthquakes), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Michael Parkhurst (Columbus Crew), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim) and Geoff Cameron (Stoke City).

Midfielders: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (Besiktas), Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg) and Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy).

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Aron Johannsson (AZ Alkmaar), Eddie Johnson (DC United)  and Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders).

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