It is often difficult to remember while watching the U.S. play during the Gold Cup that the side on the pitch is almost entirely Jurgen Klinsmann's B-team.
Landon Donovan is, of course, a superstar whose superior quality necessitates a place on the Americans' most competitive team. But the rest are merely individuals vying for opportunities to make good impressions on their manager.
Their incentive to do so is not merely distilled from a general sense of patriotism and the desire to play more football matches in front of a larger audience than they are usually afforded at their clubs.
For in less than a year's time, Brazil will open its shores and its stadia's doors to the best players in the world for a little jaunt known as the World Cup. The United States has all but ensured its participation, so every player on display now is vying for a place then.
Klinsmann could do with some impressing, though, especially in defense. His side has outscored opponents by a collective score of 16-3 during the Gold Cup, but that does not mean the back four will remain solid and staid against better opposition than Belize and Cuba.
Again, the Yanks defense in Brazil will probably not be composed of Michael Parkhurst, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson, and DaMarcus Beasley.
But there is a reason, after all, why Klinsmann is exhausting all possible options at the moment.
The old defensive bedrock that was so firmly established during the Bob Bradley era is now in the steady process of disintegration, due mostly to age.
Wizened former captain Carlos Bocanegra will be 35 years old by the time the World Cup begins, and he has not been called up since February. So will Steve Cherundolo—the old stalwart right-back has not appeared since last October due to a long-term injury.
And what of Oguchi Onyewu, who has played very sparsely for various clubs in recent years? Malaga's interest last season is a positive sign, but are two appearances and past indications of quality enough to merit a starting spot?
There are some bright talents who have emerged as possibilities to fill the various gaping voids at the back, but none have locked down their respective positions, and all still have to contend with the old-timers.
Could the German-American duo of Timmy Chandler and Fabian Johnson be the answers on either defensive flank? Quite possibly, but neither player has quite translated his undoubted potential into observable quality on the pitch for the national team.
Both are a bit more raw than one would prefer, and such weakness will certainly be exposed against the best opposition on the globe. DaMarcus Beasley, however, still possesses ample pace but can now draw from a substantial reservoir of wisdom as he ages further into his 30s. The captain of the Gold Cup side is also one of the most respected leaders on the team.
The picture becomes even more convoluted when one attempts to parse through the entanglement of center-backs Jurgen Klinsmann must consider for selection in every match.
One gets the sense that he is attempting to give Omar Gonzalez ample chances to impress, but the physically powerful center-back has not been the technically proficient rock at the back that he might yet be.
Both Michael Orozco Fiscal and Matt Besler are relatively new to the international scene, are suspiciously old for such players and have not been afforded the opportunity to face top opposition.
Geoff Cameron was consistently relied upon by defensively minded Stoke City last season, but who shall he partner with? Can Clarence Goodson rise from above-average to automatic starter? Surely Bocanegra will not be called upon even one more time?
Klinsmann has a bit of time to figure out the answers to these most pressing questions, and he will certainly be paying special attention to his back line during the remainder of the Gold Cup for any clues.
He is faced with the unenviable task of orchestrating a generational transition in his team's defense, while attempting to instill his personal tactical values in those who he deems worthy of his trust.
The manager's assignment is an extremely difficult one—largely because it will determine, to a significant degree, how the United States fares at the World Cup next summer.
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