The final round of World Cup qualifiers are just around the corner, and a slew of USMNT roster and starting lineup questions are still apprehensively swirling around the pages of American soccer websites; next week's friendly with Canada should provide a few clues to that puzzle.
The Canada game is scheduled for Jan. 29 at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. The following week, the USMNT will open hexagonal play on the road at Honduras.
The Canada friendly is also the culmination of the USMNT’s January camp.
That Southern California camp primarily is for MLS national team hopefuls, as well as others who are not in the middle of their club seasons (Tippeligaen players). Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said eight to nine from this camp are likely to be rostered for the Honduras trip.
The camp this week entered its functional work and evaluation phase. Those evaluations will go a long way toward determining which players from camp travel to Honduras.
They also will help determine Klinsmann’s focused analytic interests for the Canada friendly, as that game offers one more opportunity to validate his ongoing evaluations and ensure roster additions are ready for international play.
This friendly will not be the first opportunity for Klinsmann and his staff to see these players against another team. The camp players also participated in a closed-door scrimmage against Club Tijuana reserves yesterday.
That scrimmage aside, it will be the Canada friendly that fans can watch, and thus form their own opinions about the following five questions.
Two are pressing for this qualification cycle. Three are less pressing, but still interesting from the longer view of general depth and future World Cup cycles.
Is Gonzalez Ready?
As noted in an earlier B/R article, center back Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles) may well have become this camp’s top priority.
Almost guaranteed to start against Canada, Klinsmann will be especially interested to see how the national jersey fits Gonzo against competition beyond his fellow camp players.
Granted, these opponents are not loaded for bear. The youthful Canadian roster offers few heavyweights, and even includes a player selected from the recent MLS SuperDraft (Kyle Bekker, who played for Boston College and was drafted third by Toronto FC).
But the roster also includes established senior team attacking midfielder Dwayne de Rosario (D.C.) and forward Tosaint Ricketts (Sandnes Ulf). As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Klinsmann is probably hoping these players do test the USMNT back line.
Gonzalez seems to be in the running to make the qualifying roster as first substitute for Geoff Cameron (Stoke City) and Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander).
That roster spot may be the most important USMNT substitute this year. That is the player Klinsmann will turn toward first if the center back starter pairing begins to look as vulnerable as it did last summer.
Though there are young U.S. center backs on the horizon, Gonzo may be the only one who is ready to contribute to the cause immediately. And it is a critical cause, because the middle of this flat four presents the greatest vulnerability to U.S. qualification.
That makes this question the team's most pressing issue of the moment. It is more important than even the question of whether Landon Donovan will ever wear the red and white stripes again.
Zusi or Gatt at Right Wing?
Arena's statement conjured hopeful speculation of Donovan's return to the national team. However, nothing has been announced as yet, and we should assume that any return would follow the hexagonal opener in Honduras.
Donovan also has been plagued with recent injuries. Any announcement of his intention to return still leaves a question of who is next on the depth chart. But that's getting ahead of ourselves. For the moment, Klinsmann and the rest of us have to assume Donovan is not available indefinitely.
Klinsmann’s most likely options for starting right wing are Graham Zusi and Joshua Gatt. Both are in camp, so fans may be able to discern which impressed in training by which gets the starting nod against Canada.
Zusi (Sporting Kansas City) is more experienced, both with the USMNT and in club play. He played in several qualifiers for the national team last year.
Gatt (Molde), a speedy 21-year-old, made his first and only international appearance last year in the friendly against Russia.
Gatt was featured in an earlier B/R article as the national side’s next right-winger, and that article made the argument that Gatt could work into the line-up on the left side to accommodate a Donovan return.
However, camp evaluations will be about current abilities and team chemistry rather than which individual players have the higher potential upside.
Watch for both to get time against Canada, and in particular watch which gets the start. Both probably will travel to Honduras, where one of the two should start. Whoever starts against Canada might have that job to lose.
Which Forwards Go Forward?
In what has been a mirror image reversal of the situation three and a half years ago, when Charlie Davies’ car accident seemed to leave a gaping hole in the roster for South Africa, the USMNT now has some depth at forward.
Not in camp are Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar), Herculez Gomez (Santos Laguna) and Terrence Boyd (Rapid Wien).
All three seem to be under consideration for qualifier roster and even starting positions. None currently leave potential World Cup opponents shaking in their boots, but all are serviceable at international levels.
Likewise, Eddie Johnson (Seattle) can be viewed in that same pack of players. Johnson was a surprise roster choice last year, but made the most of his opportunities, including a much-needed brace at Antigua.
Johnson is in this camp, along with Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), Will Bruin (Houston) and Edson Buddle (Colorado).
Klinsmann doesn’t like to discuss players in these terms, but it is probably fair to now view Johnson as the standard or “control” measure against which the coaching staff is comparing other camp attackers.
It will be interesting to see which one or two gets the start against Canada.
Klinsmann has said this camp and friendly are preparation for Honduras, and given the vulnerable USMNT center of the back line, a 4-2-3-1 is a good bet.
If two forwards do start against Canada, however, don’t be surprised if Johnson is not one of the two. Assuming his camp role is that of a control measure, Klinsmann may want to use the friendly to continue his evaluation of other forwards.
Questions regarding forwards are less pressing than others, so Klinsmann might not feel any urgency to show his hand. This friendly will be significant but not critical toward this decision.
In other words, Johnson could see no playing time against Canada, and yet be on the roster for the hexagonal opener. That somehow doesn't feel true for any of the other forwards.
Johnson may or may not start against Canada, but note other forwards and start/playing time for possible answers to this broader question.
Odds are against more than two from this camp packing bags for Honduras.
Where Does Diskerud Fit into the Mix?
One of the more intriguing but less pressing questions about camp personnel is that of Mix Diskerud (Rosenborg).
The young Norwegian-American is assumed to be an attacking midfielder, but in his one, brief appearance with the USMNT, he was a late sub at center back. That was against Russia, and Klinsmann was looking for a last minute equalizer, which Diskerud magically provided.
While there aren’t many who expect Diskerud’s role on the USMNT to be on the back line, it is not really clear where he would play. Canada may provide an opportunity for fans to gain a little insight toward Klinsmann’s thoughts on the subject.
As mentioned above, expect right wing to be occupied for the evening. Does Diskerud get time on the left, at center attacking mid or even maybe as a defensive mid?
For that matter, does he start against Canada?
Klinsmann seemingly did not intend to use Diskerud against Russia, indicating he may not have had the best performance in the short camp prior to that friendly. However, that was closer to an A team roster.
If Diskerud does not start, that might be pretty good indication he is headed for the Gold Cup rather than qualifiers this year. And even if he starts, that is not a clear indicator he would be on the roster for Honduras.
Which Keeper to Keep?
Howard and Rimando both are 33-years-old. That age is not exactly ancient for a keeper, but Klinsmann presumably is and should be interested to better gauge those waiting in the wings.
He has Sean Johnson (Chicago), Bill Hamid (D.C.) and Tally Hall (Houston) in camp. We should get an idea of which keeper stood out in Southern California by which starts against the Canadians in Houston.
It is unlikely that the USMNT would go into any given qualifier with four keepers.
For this year's qualifiers as well as the remainder of this World Cup cycle, Johnson, Hamid and Hall most likely are competing for fourth on the depth chart, and an opportunity to be rostered when any of the top three might not be available.
For the next World Cup cycle, one of these three probably will compete with Guzan to be the next USMNT starter. This camp will most likely identify the keeper with the inside track for that competition.