Who Should Start for the USMNT Against Costa Rica in the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup?
With a difficult grudge match looming against Costa Rica today, Jurgen Klinsmann has some decisions to make in order to maintain the confidence and chemistry shown during this seven-game winning streak.
Some of the positions on the field are not in flux, as we can expect Landon Donovan, Nick Rimando and DaMarcus Beasley to all get the starting nod come game time.
The former two have been consistently good in the group matches and Beasley seems to be the only real lock on a back line that has delivered mixed results against lackluster teams in Guatemala, Belize and Cuba. Beasley's impressive performances in World Cup Qualifying games are further evidence to justify his starting spot as well.
With three spots down, there are eight spots remaining to help bolster the United States' chances of finishing group play undefeated, entering the quarterfinals with an easier opponent, and most surprisingly, improving to a historic team high eight-game winning streak.
The surprising element comes with the idea that this group of players for the United States is generally regarded as their "B" team, with some players like Donovan and Chris Wondolowski gaining consideration for the "A" team.
If today's match results in a victory, the U.S. Men's National team's recent success will be even more impressive given the fact that Costa Rica has six of the 11 starters from the infamous "Snow Game" in which we saw the United States grab a 1-0 victory that was criticized and caused protests from Costa Rican soccer officials; the "Snow Game" was a World Cup Qualifying game, making the result that much more important.
Seeing as this is the last game before the quarterfinals, Klinsmann should look for some continuity in the lineups he will be using from here on out.
Most likely, the lineup we see tonight will be the lineup he sends out in the following game as well, barring an injury or a poor performance from the players under consideration to start.
So who will Klinsmann start against Costa Rica?
Goalkeeper: Nick Rimando
This one should be a no-brainer.
Rimando is the most experienced goalkeeper on the roster and has been consistent in his performances to date in the Gold Cup. The two goals against him in the two matches so far cannot be attributed to anything Rimando did or did not do and happened mostly to poor marking and transition defense by the back line.
Rimando should be more than capable in net and certainly ready for this stiffer test in Costa Rica. He remains the smarter choice over Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson.
Right Back: Michael Parkhurst
Now while Michael Parkhurst may not be the ideal choice at right back for many, he remains the most logical one of the players Klinsmann has to work with.
His defensive performance against Belize was rather ordinary, as he did not have much to do; Belize only mustered two shots on goal in the entire match, but Parkhurst was at fault for losing his mark on the play.
However, his offensive work during the game was much better as he was able to get forward and find Chris Wondolowski with a terrific near-post cross that resulted in a diving header goal.
If Parkhurst can deliver the same kind of opportunities against Costa Rica and defend well against the attacking wing backs like Roy Miller, he might be able to force consideration from Klinsmann as a potential back-up defender in the near future.
Center Back: Clarence Goodson
After sitting out the previous game against Cuba, Clarence Goodson should be back in the lineup tonight.
His presence was felt early on in the game against Belize as he was frequently dangerous on set pieces and the high volume of attacks as Belize felt comfortable with 11 men behind the ball, allowing all of the United States' players to get forward.
He defended well also and his physical presence, especially in the air, cannot be understated at this point. That element of his game may end up being a game-changer on a free kick or corner kick which we have certainly seen in the two previous Gold Cups.
One of his two goals that have come in Gold Cups ended up as the winning goal in the semifinals against Honduras in 2009.
He will certainly be tried and tested more often in this game against Costa if he is given the start, but his prowess in the air and experience in this tournament should lead to a start for him tonight and another chance at Gold Cup magic.
Center Back: Michael Orozco Fiscal
This position was a tough call between Orozco Fiscal and Oguchi Oneywu, but I give the nod to Orozco Fiscal here.
His positioning, passing and dangerousness on set pieces have been consistently good in these first two games. He routinely skies for high crosses on corner kicks and free kicks into the box, and while he has not scored he has been menacing in his aerial challenges for the ball. His bruising and aggressive nature will pay off if he continues to attack like this and draw the better opposing defenders on these plays.
On the defensive end, he, like Goodson, has not had too much to do but remains quietly good in the limited opposing chances he has faced.
There was not much he could have done on the lone goal in the game against Cuba, as his partner in the center of the back line, Onyewu lost his man. His positioning on the counter-attack when Edgar Castillo was beaten could have been better, but he was in a lane for a cutback pass on the ground and the ball was played in the air over his head on a very good cross.
He has played strong and smart up until this point in time and there should not be any reason for that to change. Against a better Costa Rica team, he must not be over-aggressive and must maintain a level-headed approach in the back with whomever he is paired.
He has been the best of the center backs on the roster so far and with any luck, his aerial ability may soon reward him with a goal.
Left Back: DaMarcus Beasley
This position has become Beasley's to lose in recent games. He has shown the ability to contain pacy wing players and also the ability to get forward and form good rapport with Fabian Johnson, Eddie Johnson and Jose Torres.
His consistency against greater opponents than the ones faced so far affords Klinsmann the chance to divert more attention to the other positions.
He should look to attack early and often with the left-sided midfielder he is paired up with to continue giving fits to opposing teams.
Beasley's inclusion to the lineup for this game is about as simple a choice we will see tonight.
Holding Midfielder: Kyle Beckerman
While Beckerman's first game of the tournament was met with mixed results, his follow-up game was much better.
He provided sharper passes as the anchoring outlet of the midfield and was consistently breaking up counter-attacks and instances where Cuba had a chance to capitalize. Beckerman was roaming all over the field to collect the ball and distribute in front of the back line.
His ability in the final third, which has not always been a shining quality to his overall game, was certainly on display in this contest. On the edge of the box, Beckerman collected a pass back across to him and looked up to find a cutting Chris Wondolowski for a early cross to the near post. Wondolowski made no mistake getting a foot to the ball, knocking it into the net to give Beckerman a well deserved assist.
His diligent work in breaking up plays and being a starting point for his own team's counter-attacks will be crucial tonight against Costa Rica, who will certainly be a step up in competition in almost all areas of the game.
Of all the midfield options, Beckerman is the most defensive minded, allowing him to get the call behind the attacking center midfielder.
Left Midfielder: Jose Francisco Torres
Choosing who to start in this spot was difficult for a multitude of reasons.
Jose Francisco Torres was very active and dangerous going forward and getting crosses into the box in each of the first two games; one as a starter, one as a substitute.
With his latest performance being especially impressive against the slightly tougher opponent, you have to wonder whether he may be better as a change of pace substitute using his constant energy to wear down tiring opposing players.
Alas, I have put him here for the sole reason that he has played well as both a starter and a substitute, which no other outside midfielder on the roster can really say at this point.
Edgar Castillo struggled defensively in the last game, but became very active in the attack in the second half, providing observers with the notion that maybe he could be moved up to left midfield and continue his array of inviting crosses to the forwards.
While he may struggle with pacy wingers, his defensive ability is not lost to the point where he could not defend opposing wing backs higher up the pitch. This might be the most likely alternative scenario.
Alejandro Bedoya has one cameo in which he scored, but has not gotten enough game action to warrant starting this game. Brek Shea had an abysmal first half against Cuba and is likely not in consideration for this game.
Another option might be the rotation of Landon Donovan to this left-sided position to give the team a true hold-up forward in Herculez Gomez to pair with the white-hot Wondolowski whose positioning near goal provides a better forward combination.
As of right now, Torres has put in two good performances and enough to earn the start at left midfield.
Center (Attacking) Midfielder: Stuart Holden
The feel-good story of the tournament for the U.S. Men's National team has to be the resurgence of Stuart Holden. For a player who we feared may never make it back to his original form after two gruesome injuries, he has shown signs of the hard-working and creative midfield presence that we remembered him to be.
The only slight problem to date is Holden's fitness level. It may just be that he hasn't gone a full 90 minutes in the U.S. shirt in quite some time, but Holden is on record as saying he is fit enough to go the distance.
With the increasingly positive performances from Mix Diskerud, maybe Holden is simply facing the young hungry talent that he was just a few years ago. Both central midfielders have played quality soccer so far in this tournament, and maybe interchanging the two after 45 or 60 minutes may be for the best.
For Diskerud, it's good to keep in mind that with these two major injuries occurring to Holden in the last few years, he is just as hungry as he is to keep his spot and move up the food chain.
Look for Diskerud to replace Holden around the 60 minute mark again if Holden shows signs of fatigue or a drop in performance.
Right Midfielder: Joe Corona
Joe Corona's youth, pace and work rate on the right side has been important to the team's success so far in this tournament. Opposing teams' attacks on their left attacking side has generally resulted in limited and unsuccessful opportunities with a dual effort from Corona and either Parkhurst or Tony Beltran.
His work in the final third has been a bit varied as some of his crosses and decisive passes have been lacking in creativity and precision. He has had his moments on goal in recent games though with well struck shots on net forcing tough saves or corner kicks from deflections.
His quick thinking in the previous game against Cuba resulted in a fantastic goal that ended the deadlock and would end up as the game-winning goal in a United States victory. A bouncing ball following a challenge near the top of the box rolled to an oncoming Corona who one-timed a curling effort around Cuban goalkeeper Odelin Molina.
This type of inventiveness and awareness from Corona will only help his team going forward and with some hope, Corona will attempt more plays like this and step closer towards becoming the dangerous player he has shown flashes of potential he can be.
Forward: Landon Donovan
Landon Donovan is about as sure a thing there is on this U.S. Men's National team. It may have taken a couple games but Donovan has returned to much of his old form. He is the creative hub of the team and many of the team's goals in this tournament have been influenced by him in some way, shape or form.
He has been playing as a forward so far, alongside Gomez and Wondolowski, in respective games, so there should not be much of a change in his position for this game. With Gomez, Donovan dropped a bit into the midfield to collect the ball a bit more and distribute wide or create centrally. His rapport with Wondolowski has also been impressive recently as their chemistry seems to be getting better with each game.
Down a goal in the game against Cuba, Donovan stepped up once again in a big spot to deliver from the penalty spot and level the game.
He is the default leader of this team and looks poised to lead them to a potential Gold Cup title if he continues to play as well as he has.
Forward: Chris Wondolowski
With all due respect to Herculez Gomez, who has played a solid first two games, Wondolowski is simply playing too well right now to sit this game out. He's got five goals in these first two games and has been a menace to opposing defenses.
He has been a poacher in the truest meaning of the word.
His positioning near goal has been flawless and has finished just about every single opportunity given to him in front of goal. While he may not be physically imposing in the mold of Jozy Altidore or to an extent, Gomez, he simply gets the job done each game.
He seems to play with a bit of a chip on his shoulder each game that allows him to beat his defenders to crosses and 50/50 challenges near goal that often results in a goal.
The passing and service to him in dangerous areas has been of high quality so far in this tournament and if it continues, "Wondo," as he is referred to by his teammates and coaches, might be able to book his spot in the team's squad for Brazil in a little under a year from now.
Right now, Wondolowski is the most consistent forward on the team and as Roy McAvoy once said in Tin Cup, "You ride her 'til she bucks you or you don't ride at all."
Wondo hasn't bucked yet so Klinsmann needs to throw him out there until he does.
If he can score one or two more tonight, Wondo may be setting up a Gold Cup campaign that goes down in the annals of U.S. Men's National team history.