Certainty is currently in short supply for the United States defense.
After a string of injuries, the U.S. men's national team heads into Friday's crucial World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica in Denver with several familiar faces missing.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard and full-backs Steve Cherundolo, Timmy Chandler, Edgar Castilla and Fabian Johnson are all out injured. Experienced center-back and captain Carlos Bocanegra (110 caps) was not called up.
In their place, the U.S. has a few seasoned internationals mixed in with plenty of promising yet inexperienced new faces.
Aston Villa's Brad Guzan has the most experience of the three goalkeepers called into the squad, while Stoke City's Geoff Cameron and Brondby's Clarence Goodson are the only defenders with five or more appearances in World Cup qualifying.
Omar Gonzalez (L.A. Galaxy) played the full 90 minutes in last month's 2-1 loss at Honduras, which was his first qualifying appearance. None of the remaining defenders—Tony Beltran (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City) and Justin Morrow (San Jose Earthquakes)—have appeared in qualifying, but more options are available from the pool of midfielders.
Cameron's teammate at Stoke, midfielder Maurice Edu, can also play central defense, and left-sided midfielder DaMarcus Beasley can play full-back (though he had an infamously poor performance there against Costa Rica in 2009). Both Beasley (26 qualifying appearances) and Edu (10) have plenty of experience at this level.
(For the full roster, click here.)
Clearly, then, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has plenty of options—though not necessarily any clear solution.
Assuming Klinsmann opts for a four-man defense, he could take one of many different approaches. At Soccer By Ives, Ives Galarcep proposes a back line of Beasley, Edu, Gonzalez and Cameron. In that lineup, Cameron would switch from his usual center-back position with the U.S. squad to right-back, with Edu and Beasley moving into defense from the midfield.
"You can look at Mo (Edu) in different ways, which is a big plus for us," said Klinsmann (via USSoccer.com). "We already tried him at center back very successfully last year in August, in Mexico. It worked really well. We know he can play on the side, as well, and we know he can play any role in midfield."
The advantage of using Edu in defense is clear: Beasley and Cameron would play out of their preferred position but would offer more experience than Morrow or Beltran. This makes some sense, but if experience is key, Goodson might also be an option.
With that said, Klinsmann could start Gonzalez, Goodson and Cameron in the middle, with Beltran and Morrow on each flank. Inexperience would still be an issue on each side, but at least one defender in the middle would be more seasoned.
Klinsmann said Beltran and Morrow have performed well in recent U.S. camps but left open the possibility that more experienced players could start at full-back on Friday.
"They’re doing very well. I had them both in the January camp so I absolutely think they have the quality to come to the next level now," said Klinsmann (via USSoccer.com). "But we also have other options maybe coming out of midfield. I’m comfortable that we are covered there.”
Whatever Klinsmann decides, the stakes are high. After losing to Honduras in the final-round opener, the U.S. sits at the bottom of the "hexagonal" standings. Following the home match against Costa Rica, the Americans travel next Tuesday to Mexico, where they have never won a qualifying match.
"Every home game in the hexagonal is a must-win situation," said Klinsmann. "You want to get all the points possible in your home games so, independent of the result in Honduras, it’s a must-win on Friday night here against Costa Rica."