The U.S. Men’s National Team is still running hot on an 11-game winning streak after claiming their fifth Gold Cup title.
The recent performance of the so-called “B-team” has USMNT fans salivating into the deep pool of talent cultivated by coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. An added benefit, and one that Klinsmann is constantly looking to cultivate, is all of the extra talent challenging each other and improving the overall quality of the entire lot.
The depth of the player pool comes with a challenge: Klinsmann can only take 23 players with him to Brazil.
It makes it not easier for us coaches then going toward Brazil with more options because at the end of the day you can only take 23 to the tournament. It is a good challenge. It is a good thing to have now. It keeps everybody on their toes, no matter where they play. You think about a lot of the Europeans not being part of the Gold Cup. They know now there are a bunch of other players trying to break into this group.
Clearly, Klinsmann is pleased with the status of the current crop of USMNT players, and Klinsmann isn’t putting a cover on the pool just yet. There are still several players on the coach’s radar that could make a late run to catch the flight to Brazil.
Beginning with this edition of the Bubble Boys, we’ll look at the status of the national team pool by position using the general and highly flexible 4-2-3-1 formation. I will pick a few that seem to be a current lock for Brazil (Bubble Insiders) then go over the players still on the bubble—the Bubble Boys.
The goalkeepers are set: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando. An injury could shake this up, but for now there is no speculation needed at the keeper’s spot.
In this edition I will also speculate on a few players who have yet to play for the senior national side but could find their way on to the final 23-man roster—the Bubble Babies.
The 4-2-3-1 formation generally deploys a target forward, though it is not required for the formation to work successfully. The target forward still seems to be Klinsmann’s preferred point man, but he has shown some flexibility depending on his bench, the opponent and the status of the game when he makes substitutions.
Jozy Altidore stepped up to Klinsmann’s challenge. He worked hard on his target skills with AZ Alkmaar, and smart money says that he’ll tactically deploy as a target for Sunderland when the EPL season begins.
Prior to the Gold Cup, Eddie Johnson usually appeared with Altidore and thus was moved out to the wing. At the Gold Cup, however, he played the target role and Klinsmann was impressed, noting that Johnson will “come back to the next world Cup Qualifiers with Costa Rica and Mexico.”
Herculez Gomez is similar to Johnson in that he can play both the wing and target positions. Unfortunately, he moves on to the bubble with the recent announcement that he will need a knee surgery to clean up a nagging problem. While it doesn’t sound too serious, and players usually recover from a simple scope in two to three weeks, knee injuries are notoriously fickle. So until we see Herc’s motor churning up the pitch he has to be considered a bubble boy.
Terence Boyd is no doubt a talented player and is probably the next pure target man in the pool after Altidore. But the U.S. has a lot of experienced talent that is more versatile and could keep him off the final roster. Smart money says he goes as Altidore’s target understudy and his club performance this year will determine whether or not he’s outside the bubble when the final roster is announced.
Chris Wondolowski’s Gold Cup performance has him on the bubble and under serious consideration. Anticipating Klinsmann’s thinking, Wondo is not the classic target man, more of a poacher really, which may explain why he gave way to Johnson in the final two rounds of the Gold Cup. Still, he’s got the kind of motor Klinsmann covets, and if he can produce in a qualifier he may sneak on to the final roster.
Klinsmann was pleased to hear that Aron Johannsson intends to commit to the U.S. national team. The AZ Alkmaar forward now occupies Altidore’s old spot, and if AZ can feed Johannsson the way it fed Altidore, this kid could find a way to burst someone’s bubble.
The “3” in the formation has two wingers and an attacking midfielder (or shadow striker if you prefer). Key to the 4-2-3-1 is the versatility of this attacking line as they interchange with each other and look for overlapping runs out of the back. Plus, the wingers can play more centrally if the fullbacks overlap outside.
The result is that these players are often the same players you find as a second forward, or in the outside and center midfield of a 4-4-2.
Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are in, ‘nuff said.
Graham Zusi has a lock on a winger spot whether as a starter or coming off the bench late in a game. He picked up a slight knock in the MLS All-Star game, but only a serious injury could put him outside the bubble at this point.
Fabian Johnson is a reasonable bet at this point because of his defensive versatility. He can play the fullback or defensive winger role in addition to the more attacking winger function.
Some people thought Brek Shea’s Gold Cup heroics moved him inside the bubble, but Klinsmann still wants to see more consistency from the talented winger.
Shea caught a bad break when he sprained his MCL in his first preseason game back with Stoke City. He will only miss a few weeks, but that can be an eternity when it comes to earning regular playing time with Stoke—one of Klinsmann’s requirements for his regular squad.
Alejandro Bedoya is back in the picture after showing some serious game in the later rounds of the Gold Cup. He is still a tad inconsistent over an entire game, so look for his club performances to signal whether or not Klinsmann brings him back for the remaining qualifiers.
Sacha Kljestan is accumulating a pedigree with Anderlecht that will make it difficult for Klinsmann to ignore the long-time Nat. His experience may put him ahead of the other Bubble Boys on the “3”-line.
Danny Williams needs to shine early in the Championship season to break the bubble and get back into this deep group.
Brad Davis is another winger with defensive chops, and Klinsmann’s reliance on him in recent qualifiers keeps him on the bubble.
Jose Villarreal showed a national TV audience his ability to glide past defenders and finish with flair. The 19-year-old MLS product earned nine starts for the Galaxy this season and could become the junior-du-jour over Luis Gil.
The “2”-line of holding midfielders is the key feature of the 4-2-3-1. This duo can be a pairing of a traditional destroyer midfielder with a more attack-minded option as we recently saw in the Gold Cup. Or, it can pair a couple of box-to-box maestros who pivot off of each other as we usually see in the World Cup qualifiers.
Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones have a lock on the “2”-line with their ability to pivot off of each other. Both players can destroy an attack, be a deep playmaker, carry the ball into the attack and make late runs into the box. Their increasing familiarity with each other’s games means that they are an effective pairing which Klinsmann shows no interest in breaking up.
Mix Diskerud moves inside the bubble with his Gold Cup performance. He is a more attack-minded midfielder but really showed a new willingness to drop back on to the “2”-line and break up attacks. Only an injury or poor run of form for his club team could ruin his chances now.
Kyle Beckerman is still on the bubble, but Klinsmann will need a backup destroyer on the 23-man roster. Right now he has to be the No. 1 backup destroyer in the pool. His ability to distribute showed promise against lesser CONCACAF competition.
Maurice Edu is also in the hunt for a destroyer spot on the “2”-line but will need regular club minutes at Stoke City.
Klinsmann really liked Jose Torres’ game at the Gold Cup. Torres also showed a new interest in playing hard-nosed defense and can play the wing, and Klinsmann loves versatility. He’s on this line because of he seems ready to play some D.
Joe Corona is in a similar position as Torres, and you could argue that he’s moved ahead of Torres on the depth chart. Corona got four recent starts, three in the Gold Cup, and his versatility could have him playing on the “2”- or “3”-line just like Torres.
I can’t really think of a young holding midfielder ready to burst someone’s bubble this late in the cycle. Any suggestions?
The back four is really two different types of positions. The center backs are the traditional big men who can deal with aerial threats and target forwards, making the long run up-field for set pieces. The fullbacks are a traditional back-four position, but Klinsmann really sees this position as a withdrawn winger more than a part of the base defense, as reported by Charles Boehm of MLSsoccer.com:
A fullback nowadays turns almost into a little bit of a playmaker role. He will decide games in the way they fill in–that means defensively how they connect with the center backs, how they connect with the right or even the center midfielders...if he understands his role and has the technical abilities to go forward, he becomes almost like a winger.
The modern teams, starting 10, 12, 14 years ago, they wanted fullbacks to join in, to play one-twos, to overlap, to cross, to assist goals or maybe even possibly to score goals. And therefore you need to have a really complete game. You need to be technically very gifted if you want to play that attacking role of a fullback, you need to have vision, you need to be strong one against one both ways. And you need to understand what the center backs are doing.
Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez are inside the bubble at center back. Geoff Cameron is as well because of his versatility. Don’t be surprised if Klinsmann carries Cameron on the roster rather than a second destroyer midfielder like Beckerman or Edu as this frees up a roster spot for more attacking options.
Right now only DaMarcus Beasley sits inside the bubble as a designated fullback. Of course he’s really more of a natural winger and thus demonstrates the utility of wing skills for an outside back in the 4-2-3-1. See Fabian Johnson above as well.
The Mayor of Hannover, Steve Cherundolo, still must be considered the main man at right back. Bundesliga teams generally deploy the winger-fullback, so Cherundolo is familiar with Klinsmann’s tactics. He also looked very effective in the 4-2-3-1 when he played the Fall qualifiers. If Cherundolo is healthy, he is in.
Edgar Castillo is struggling to pick up Klinsmann’s tactics and may be fading down the stretch. Even so, he is a natural left-side player, where the U.S. is traditionally lacking depth.
Timothy Chandler has the talent, but apparently lacks the will to vie for a roster spot. He will sit on the bubble right through the spring unless he shows Klinsmann some true grit.
Either Clarence Goodson or Carlos Bocanegra is a fair bet to occupy the role of wizened vet on the back four, assuming Klinsmann agrees that he needs one. This could depend on how many roster spots go to versatile players like Cameron as opposed to specialists like Beckerman.
Michael Parkhurst earned praise from his coach during the Gold Cup. If his club situation sorts out, he could make it as a backup to Cherundolo. Of, if the Mayor is hurt, beat out Chandler for a starting spot.
The man so tall he needs three names, John Anthony Brooks, played an important role in bringing Hertha Berlin back to the 1.Bundesliga. Reports have the 6’4” center back playing for Klinsmann in the August friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina. If Klinsmann decides not to bring a veteran center back, maybe he’ll bring a top defensive prospect.