This is the first part of a two part series. Here is Part II.
The 2014 World Cup kicks off in less than three years—two years, 10 months and 28 days, to be exact—and the U.S. men's national team seems set and solid at keeper.
The same cannot be said, however, about the back line. Because the talent is most thin here, defense may be the trickiest area to predict for the U.S. A shaky performance in the Gold Cup makes predicting those who may emerge or re-emerge to land starting spots in 2014 even trickier.
Here goes nothing...
Starter: Tim Howard
Since 2007, Howard has been the go-to goalkeeper for the U.S. and rightfully so. In 2009 and 2010, he was in the top 10 of the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeepers list, and just this past year, he helped Everton to a seventh-place finish in the Premier League.
Although he’ll be 35 during the 2014 World Cup, Howard’s ability doesn’t seem to be on the decline. Also, keepers tend to play well into their 30s. Just look at Tony Meola, Kasey Keller and Edwin Van Der Sar.
In line after Howard is 26-year-old Brad Guzan. Playing in crucial matches, like a 2-2 2010 World Cup qualifier against El Salvador and a 3-0 victory over Egypt in the 2009 Confederations Cup, Guzan has established himself as the second-choice keeper.
Once Howard’s career with the Yanks is over—probably not long after the 2014 World Cup—the job in net will be Guzan’s to lose.
Starter: Timothy Chandler
Fatigue kept him from playing in the Gold Cup, but the 21-year-old German-born defender now seems fresh and ready to show the world his talents. His speed and ability to attack may be the answer for a complacent Yanks back line. Chandler is also gaining valuable experience by playing for FC Nuremberg in the Bundesliga.
Americans got a glimpse of Chandler earlier this year, when he made appearances against Paraguay and Argentina. Against the latter, he played the entire second half, helping the US secure a 1-1 draw.
Even though this position seems to have been saved for Jonathan Spector, if Chandler emerges as the player he should be, Spector will have to look elsewhere. That's not necessarily a problem for the Illinois native, who has played all over the back line and even in the midfield. Look for him to possibly move to left back, a position he frequented with West Ham United. Who knows? Maybe Spector and Chandler will even take turns starting on this side.
Like Howard, Steve Cherundolo, the current right back, will be 35 when the 2014 World Cup rolls around. For an aging defender, however, it’s even harder to sustain such an intense level of play. He may be selected to the squad, but as a second- or third-stringer, where he could mentor younger, less experienced players.
Starters: Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez
For the last few years, Oguchi Onyewu has been a mainstay with the Yanks as a central defender. Other than Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, also likely to be out before 2014, Gooch has the most experience in the back. However, it’s obvious he hasn’t been the same player since rupturing his patellar tendon in 2009.
After a failed stint with AC Milan, he’s getting a second chance in Europe, this time with the Portuguese club Sporting. It remains to be seen if he’ll be given another opportunity with the U.S.
Although he was selected for the Gold Cup squad, Gooch didn’t make an appearance. His future with the Yanks may depend on how well he performs with Sporting. Gooch will also be pushing 33 in 2014, which means it may be more beneficial for him to come off the bench.
Clarence Goodson, Gooch’s possible replacement, performed quite well in the Gold Cup. However, it could be attributed to playing with veterans like Bocanegra and Cherundolo.
Will Gooch reclaim his starting position in the back?
Late on the scene, Goodson didn’t make his first appearance for the Yanks until 2008, when he was 25 years old. He has less than half the international experience of Gooch, and is four days older. Goodson just seems like a quick fix to a long-term problem. Maybe Gooch and Goodson will start together and call themselves the “towering two-some?"
Standing at 6'5", the 22-year-old Omar Gonzalez looks like the Yanks’ lengthy defender of the future. It is obvious he needs some work, but the 2009 MLS Rookie of the Year can really get up in the air, an asset on either end of the pitch.
Tim Ream may have blown his opportunity to become a future U.S. starter after giving up a penalty to Panama in Gold Cup group play that led to the game-winning goal. Afterwards, Bradley didn’t play Ream for the rest of the tournament.
However, at only 23 years old, there is plenty of room for him to learn and grow from it. He is also linked to a possible move to PSV Eindhoven, something that would greatly help in his development.
Players who could also find their way to the starting center back position in 2014 are 27-year-old Zak Whitbread, who will gain precious experience playing in the Premier League (after his club team, Norwich City, was promoted from The Championship last season), 19-year-old Gale "Boss" Agbossoumonde and 21-year-old Brek Shea, who was the first player born in the 1990s to get a U.S. cap. Look out for 17-year-old Mobi Fehr as well.
Starter: Eric Lichaj
Although Jonathan Bornstein seems to be Bradley’s first choice at left back, he may have removed himself, once and for all, as the go-to guy with his performance against Mexico in the Gold Cup Final.
After coming in as a sub for an injured Cherundolo, with the U.S. on top 1-0, Bornstein, who has a history of poor performances, was thrashed by the Mexican offense, which scored four unanswered goals after the Yanks knocked in one more.
Eric Lichaj, who switched to the right side when Cherundolo came out against Mexico, fared reasonably well in the Gold Cup, and with only eight appearances for the U.S. team, it’s not unreasonable to blame his faults on inexperience. Playing club ball in England, and getting put into the Yanks’ rotation more, may give this 22-year-old the experience he needs to become a starter in 2014.
Two more options include Zach Loyd and Edgar Castillo. Loyd, 23, made his only appearance for the National Team against Chile this past January, and was actually named the Man of the Match after helping the Yanks secure a 1-1 draw.
Castillo, 24, has returned to Club America after bouncing around Mexico’s Primera Division, and recently said that if he were put in Bornstein’s position, he would’ve performed better in the Gold Cup Final.
Don’t be surprised if Heath Pearce re-emerges as a left back candidate, and don’t forget about Spector here either.