Whether it's due to injury, lack of form, self-imposed sabbatical or club commitments, it seems like the United States men's national team never gets to put its best lineup on the field. But heading towards the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with a plethora of nightmarish group stage draws possible, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will need his best players healthy and in form if the U.S. is to make a deep run.
So, what would the ideal starting XI for the USMNT look like if everyone was healthy and available all at the same time?
There's certainly a case to made for Brad Guzan to get the start in the net for the USMNT, as he has been excellent for Aston Villa over the past two seasons and deputized well for Tim Howard at the international level when Howard has been injured. However, Howard is still the No. 1 for two reasons.
The first reason is that he is an excellent leader, and considering the relative inexperience of the U.S. back line, that leadership will be needed at the World Cup. The second reason is that Howard is still damn good.
The fact that Steve Cherundolo has missed the past year with knee issues is certainly troubling, a concern that is not alleviated when considering he is 34 years old (35 in February).
However, the fact that he has been out of the U.S. lineup for a year and no one has staked a definitive claim at right-back in the 23 matches the team has played without him speaks volumes.
Recently, Cherundolo has returned to Hannover's matchday squad, and he will likely be back playing regularly soon. He may not be able to play every minute of the tournament in Brazil, but his leadership, experience and skill is desperately needed by the U.S. on the right side of the back line.
The growth of Omar Gonzalez over the past year has been remarkable. Since returning from an ACL injury in early 2012, he helped lead the L.A. Galaxy to the 2012 MLS Cup and became a regular fixture in the Americans' back line in 2013. He is dominant in the air, and his performances have been improving steadily over the past year at the international level.
He still makes the occasional mistake—something the U.S. could easily be punished for in a World Cup—but it's his job to lose.
Since being given a surprise start against Mexico in March, Matt Besler has made himself a regular fixture in the U.S. lineup. He reads the game as well as anyone, has excellent positioning and is smooth in possession. The U.S. will be well served with Besler in the back.
Although Jurgen Klinsmann still routinely lists Fabian Johnson as a midfielder on roster releases, Johnson best serves the U.S. when playing in the back. He has experience at the highest levels of the Bundesliga and gets forward to help the attack very well.
Michael Bradley is everything a coach could hope for in a center midfielder. He holds possession well in tight spaces, plays well with his back to pressure, gets forward well, switches the point of attack and is physically and mentally tough.
He is, quite simply, the engine of the U.S. midfield.
If Jermaine Jones is healthy, Jurgen Klinsmann will start him alongside Michael Bradley in the U.S. midfield, but it has become increasingly obvious over the past year that it is the wrong choice. Jones' performances are maddeningly inconsistent, he coughs up possession far too easily, contributes little to the attack and, most importantly, hampers Michael Bradley's ability to get forward.
Pairing Bradley with Geoff Cameron would free up Bradley to get forward, and Cameron's excellent possession skills would suit the U.S. best in the middle of the park, where he can start the U.S. attack. Cameron's experience as a center-back—as well as his strength in the air—makes him a perfect shield sitting in front of center-backs Gonzalez and Besler.
Clint Dempsey's performances at the end of 2013 with the Seattle Sounders were far from awe-inspiring, but he remains the Americans' best option at attacking midfielder. Dempsey has been the most-consistent goalscorer in the Jurgen Klinsmann era, and that alone makes him an indispensable part of the squad.
Landon Donovan's inclusion in the starting XI doesn't require much justification. He is the Americans' best playmaker, and his leadership, skill and experience make him essential to the success of the USMNT.
Graham Zusi's lack of flair has meant that he's never been a favorite of many USMNT fans, who have assumed that he was incapable of replicating his Major League Soccer form at the international level. However, over the past year, Zusi has dispelled that belief in a multitude of ways.
Zusi proved in the March qualifier against Mexico that his defensive effort on the wing is unmatched. He proved last October against Antigua and Barbuda, in the June qualifiers this summer and against Mexico in September that his playmaking ability and service from the wing is top-class.
Finally, he proved in the October 2013 qualifiers against Jamaica and Panama that he can also chip in with the odd goal.
Alejandro Bedoya has had his chance, starting the last five games for the USMNT, but he has been unimpressive.
Joe Corona looked like he might be a contender with an excellent performance in the Gold Cup this summer, but his lack of club form has pushed him down the depth chart.
There's no doubt that Jozy Altidore's club form with Sunderland has been troubling, and it appeared in the Americans' recent November friendlies that his club experiences were affecting his form. However, Altidore is still the Klinsmann's best option as a holdup forward, as his size and strength fit the bill perfectly.
Altidore will certainly face some competition from former AZ Alkmaar teammate Aron Johannsson and perhaps even Eddie Johnson, but he proved last season with his 31 goals in the Eredivisie and this summer and fall with the USMNT that given proper service, he can bring home the goals.
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