Consistency top priority for USA

What we thought we would see heading into 2012 World Cup qualifying was a US men’s national team firing on all cylinders, a full-strength squad capable of dominating smaller opponents and capable of challenging Mexico for bragging rights in the CONCACAF region.

What we actually have seen from Jurgen Klinsmann’s side after three friendlies is a team that is far from the finished product; a team with some questions still unanswered, and some flaws that could be exploited as the competition the US faces gets tougher.

You can start with a defense that looks far from imposing. Then you can turn to an attack that remains inconsistent despite having the individual pieces to be a far more dangerous unit.

The 5-1 victory against Scotland provided so much promise, and optimism, but the subsequent loss to Brazil and scoreless draw against Canada left the team looking worse off than the whole sequence began. It is easy to forget that this same team beat Italy three months ago, so we have seen this team put together impressive showings. Consistency remains the issue, along with the unsettled state of the team’s preferred formation and the uncertain present and future of the defense.

These issues should not keep the United States from advancing in the next round of World Cup qualifying, but they will need to be addressed if the Americans are going to advance through the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying comfortable, or make some real noise at the 2014 World Cup.

Here is a look at the state of the team, including the team’s preferred formation options, and the top starting options at each position heading into World Cup qualifying, which kicks off on Friday in Tampa against Antigua & Barbuda:

FORMATION

The way the USA looked playing a 4-3-3 against Scotland has led to a call for that to be Klinsmann’s preferred position, but it isn’t a clear choice for the team when it is at full strength. The 4-4-2 that looked so encouraging late against Brazil seems to suit the starting options the best. That may not have appeared so against Canada, but it should be noted that Clint Dempsey spent so much time dropping deep that the USA formation looked far more like a 4-5-1 against the Canadians.

The question here is whether Klinsmann will use the 4-4-2 and be practical, or try to force his own stamp on the team by deploying a 4-3-3. That could depend largely on Jozy Altidore and Herculez Gomez. If they play well as a tandem, then Klinsmann will have little choice but to go with a 4-4-2. But if Altidore can’t find his form, or if Gomez just doesn’t provide enough of a spark, then look for Maurice Edu or Jose Torres to be slotted into the lineup and Dempsey and Donovan to join Altidore or Gomez in the 4-3-3.

LINE OF DEFENSE

The most settled and reliable starter on the team, Tim Howard is in top form heading into qualifying. Nick Rimando and Brad Guzan are waging a good battle for the No. 2 role, with Rimando looking like he may get the edge due to his experience. Defender Fabian Johnson was the revelation of the group in the recent qualifiers, looking like a dynamic threat at left back. Carlos Bocanegra and Steven Cherundolo remain steady starters, though their age continues to be a concern.

The spot alongside Bocanegra is the one that’s up for grabs and Clarence Goodson did his part to stake a claim to it with a good showing against Canada. Oguchi Onyewu’s shaky night against Brazil cost him his place, though you can argue the fairness of judging Onyewu against Brazil vs. Goodson against Canada. We can’t forget that Goodson looked sharp against Italy, which probably more than anything will earn him a starting role for now.

Is Onyewu nursing a knee injury, or still not fully recovered from the knee surgery that cost him a chunk of the second half of the Portuguese Liga season? He didn’t look one hundred percent against Brazil. If he is, in fact, nursing an injury, then Geoff Cameron stands to benefit if anything happens to Goodson.

The back-up fullback spots continue to raise some concerns. Michael Parkhurst hasn’t looked all that impressive at right back, while Edgar Castillo showed some good and bad signs against Canada. These shows only make the omission of Eric Lichaj from the squad, and Timmy Chandler’s absence, more glaring.

MIDDLE OF THE PACK

If Klinsmann is going to go with a 4-4-2, then it’s a safe bet that a foursome will be the midfield. Michael Bradley has been the best midfielder on the team this year, while Jermaine Jones has looked good (even though his penchant for yellow cards is a concern). Clint Dempsey didn’t look to be fully fit against Canada, and Landon Donovan looked out of sorts against both Brazil and Canada. Undoubtedly, the two US stars will be in the lineup when qualifying commences.

Maurice Edu looks like viable defensive midfield option, though he looked out of his element when deployed in a more advanced position. Jose Torres showed some good signs against Scotland, but disappointed in the subsequence matches, which raises concerns about whether he is ready to start. Klinsmann likes his creativity so don’t be surprised to see Torres given a chance to start in upcoming qualifiers.

LUCKY STRIKE

Herculez Gomez was the big winner out of this group, showing well in two of the three matches, and working very hard in the match against Canada. Jozy Altidore wasn’t able to show what he could do in the recent friendlies as he worked his way back into match fitness, but his form for AZ Alkmaar this past season makes him a sure bet to start once he is fit. The question for Klinsmann is whether to play Altidore as a lone striker or partner him with Gomez, who could work well running off of Altidore.

Terrence Boyd showed some flashes in recent friendlies, and has a bright future, but is not quite ready to be a starter on this team.