At some point this summer the United States will have to call in a substitute. It might be for an injury, a booking, a change of tactics, the search for an elusive goal, or in defense of a lead.
The annals of soccer are full of substitutes that have come on and changed an entire game. The super sub exhibits a skill, talent, mindset, or energy that hasn't been seen in the game before he has been put on the field.
Oftentimes, these players are as important to the team's success as the starting members.
So when it comes down to it, whom will Bob Bradley most likely call upon to step off the bench and electrify his team?
The shortlist of suspects (assuming all first team choices are free of injury):
Are there any realistic attacking substitutes for the U.S.?
Since Charlie Davies' injury, no other forward has emerged as a compliment to Jozy Altidore. In the absence of someone off the bench, Bradley will more than likely turn to his most attack minded midfielder.
Fans saw Dempsey push forward during the FIFA Confederations Cup, and they can expect the same this summer. Whether it's to rejuvenate his game for the last 20 minutes or to give the offense a different look, Dempsey will see time up front.
The only question is whether it will be better for Dempsey to start up front or slide into that position later in the game. Bradley hasn't given an Altidore/Dempsey pair a lot of playing time, but it's should be a serious consideration for two reasons.
First, Dempsey has an eye for goal and wants to score on every play. There are few players on the U.S. that crave the rush of scoring as much as he does.
Secondly, if Dempsey isn't involved in the game from the outset, he gets frustrated and tends to let up on his effort, especially defensively. Against elite opponents this tendency could spell disaster for the U.S. It might be in Bradley's best interest to move him up front and remove such a flaw.
Depending on health, it may be a better choice to have Davies come off of the bench. Davies' speed, touch, and match fitness may not be ready by the World Cup, so he could be used as a substitute.
Even if Davies is forever changed by his injury, his drive to put his imprint on the game, especially in the final third, won't disappear. It may make him a dangerous late game substitute.
If Davies doesn't start, expect him to see good minutes if he's healthy enough. As for making the team, unless it's clear he can't play first team soccer, he has a roster spot.
Another choice in lieu of realistic bench players.
Even though he has been playing his best on the outside, if he is stifled or Bradley needs to make changes, Donovan could move up front. This is especially true with no other players demonstrating Davies-like speed and first team skill; Donovan could be the alternative.
Are there any other options off the bench?
With the hamstring injury to Brian Ching, Conor Casey, Eddie Johnson, and Robbie Findley's struggles, plus the lack of opportunities and time for Herculez Gomez and Marcus Tracy, there's no definitive choice at forward from the sideline.
Still, the others could find playing time. There's a chance that the U.S.'s advancement into the second round could be decided before the last match, and in such a case, Bradley would want to rest players or, if the team has been eliminated, see what the future holds.
Under these circumstances, any forward on the roster has the potential to play. The experience would be invaluable.
Before his injury and with the injury to Charlie Davies, Holden was in the running for a starting position.
Now with the expected return of Davies, the midfield is once again a crowded place for wingers. Still, Holden's intelligence, well-rounded skills, and technique make him a smart choice for a number of situations.
If the team finds itself behind, Holden allows Bradley to push Dempsey forward, to relieve a player without sacrificing skill, or to use Holden to add another dimension to the attack. Holden offers better service on crosses and corners than arguably any other other player, including Landon Donovan.
Still, there are some question marks surrounding him. Will he be fully recovered from his broken leg?
Also, Holden can disappear for stretches of a game. Sometimes he struggles defensively, and if he is not sought out by his teammates early on, it is difficult for him to find a rhythm.
Nevertheless, the team does not have a more versatile weapon on the bench. Holden can play in almost any position in the midfield, and he has a skill set that few others have. Again, as long as he is 100 percent he can expect to see good minutes this summer.
Another one time challenger for a starting spot.
A lack of chemistry with the core of the U.S. squad and injury woes have relegated this player to the bench (and some suspect he might even be fighting for a spot in the 23).
While Holden demonstrates incisive service, Feilhaber's talents are a bit more subtle.
When at his best, Feilhaber is comfortable with the ball at his feet, either dribbling or distributing. He can play both as a winger or in the center of the midfield, so his is a versatile choice.
On more than one occasion Feilhaber has caused a wave of calm to spread through a disjointed U.S. effort. Few on the U.S. team have a personality and style so influential.
Unfortunately, Feilhaber's gifts are as inconsistent as his health. Given more than his share of opportunities to find a starting spot in the midfield, Feilhaber has never been able to find the run of good form to stamp his name on a position.
In the end, the best option for Bradley has been to call Feilhaber off of the bench.
And even so, Feilhaber has much to prove. Hopefully, between the last of the U.S. warm-up matches and the World Cup camp, there will be enough of an opportunity for Feilhaber to solidify his position on the national team.
The Little Known Substitute
In 1998 there was Frankie Hejduk, in 2002, Clint Mathis, 2006—well, perhaps there were enough signs that Clint Dempsey was a star in the making.
No matter how you look at it, there has always been an American player that has exploded onto the international scene come the World Cup.
Many are prophesying South Africa as the time and place for Michael Bradley's coming out party. However, this year's American star will probably come from the bench.
Granted, America's overall improvement on the world stage, either through the MLS or players overseas, may make it more difficult for a complete unknown to stake a semi-permanent spot on the national team, but there are differing levels of accomplishment.
The real success would be for one of the midfield players not expected to do much—or for one of the players deemed past his prime—to have a resurgence of fortune.
If they make the team, a player like Jose Torres—who exhibited a spark of life in the nightmare first half against the Netherlands (either his shot from long range, or defending a player with a broken leg)—could have a class showing by revitalizing the team late in a game.
Or, someone like DaMarcus Beasley (Ricardo Clark/Maurice Edu) could reassert himself as an essential ingredient for success.
It doesn't matter which player it is, there's a good chance there will be a surprise performance by an overlooked midfielder.
Because of injuries, no outfield position might be more examined and understood than the U.S. defense.
Many players have been given opportunities, and it's pretty clear what American defenders bring to the table. If all the backs are healthy, Bradley has a strong starting four with an easy to implement alternate.
Since the starting backs (most likely Carlos Bocanegra, Jonathan Spector, Oguchi Onyewu, and Jay DeMerit) can play more than one position, it's easy to substitute Steve Cherundolo, an attacking right back.
So, depending on the tactics, expect Cherundolo to receive playing time, and if another defender struggles, Cherundolo could end up being a starter by the end of the tournament.
There's a lot to play for in the back.
All the Rest
The same can be said for the other defenders to make the list. Be it Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein, or Heath Pearce, all of these defenders could see the field.
Americans are notorious card collectors, and a player could easily be ineligible for a game, not to mentioned injured. Bradley could look to one of these backs to fill in. Yes, the skill level will be a drop-off, but few defenders have stepped up and demonstrated that they are ready for one of the 23 roster spots.
Also, the only starting defender that won't be in his thirties by the next World Cup will be Jonathan Spector. If Bradley has any forethought, he'll want his younger backs to gain as much experience as the tournament allows.
While athletic, American fullbacks are forever short on intelligence. Developing a young defender to organize the back line should be a subplot for Bradley during the group stage.
The pecking order for the defense may be clear, but playing time for these players may be more important than for any other position on the field.
Over the stretch of qualifying, the bench netminders have been the most stable.
But now, just as the World Cup looms, there seems to be some discussion as who should support Tim Howard.
Brad Guzan is still the number two selection, and more than likely would get the call if Howard was to be replaced. There's been little evidence or opportunities for the depth chart to be challenged, so expect Guzan to be the first choice off the bench.
The Future or Experience?
What's more interesting is the last choice. Will it be Troy Perkins, Luis Robles, or a veteran like Marcus Hahnemann? There have even been calls to convince Friedel to come out of retirement and be the third/second keeper. He does start in front of Guzan at Aston Villa.
If the U.S. gets to the third keeper then there are probably more pressing problems than which player gets the call, but does it send a message?
It's difficult for the keepers behind Howard; he's young (in goalie years), talented, and motivated. Will anyone else get a chance?
Guzan is supposed to be talented, and Troy Perkins has demonstrated natural goalie instincts. They could be strong keepers, but Howard's dominance can't be understated.
Will the goalkeeper tradition continue in the states? Will younger players, gifted with genetics and talent, play in the net knowing that the depth chart for the next eight years has already been decided?
And that's what is important with the goalkeeper decision. Will there be a place for goalkeeping youth, or will Bradley stress experience and development? As with all bench players on a World Cup team, the future must be considered along with the present.
So when the referee's neon number sign lights up, wait with bated breath, because the fate of the U.S. men's national team may be in the hands—or feet—of that seldom used substitute.