This July, the U.S. Men’s National Team will compete with their North and Central American rivals in the Gold Cup, at the end of which one team will be crowned champions of CONCACAF. This is important in itself, but also in that it offers a chance to play in the 2017 Confederations Cup, a prestigious tournament in Russia, with the champions of each confederation and the host country competing for gold. The U.S. won the Gold Cup in 2013, so they will play the 2015 winner of the Gold Cup in a playoff to qualify for the 2017 Confederations Cup, and if the U.S. wins this year’s Gold Cup, they automatically qualify.
Winning the Gold Cup would also be very beneficial for U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who has only won two of nine games since the World Cup, and has been increasingly criticized in the media. The criticisms are both based on his lack of results, but also his lack of accepting responsibility, often blaming his players for losses instead of accepting a share of the responsibility. After a pretty good performance in the World Cup, it is unlikely that Klinsmann will be fired any time soon, but if the Gold Cup goes poorly the German’s seat will unquestionably get hotter.
The roster that Klinsmann chooses will be largely dependent on the type of formation he prefers going in. In the past year Klinsmann has played the 4-4-2 diamond, a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1, with a second striker/attacking mid in behind a main striker, and recently has been experimenting with the 3-5-2. Recently, Klinsmann has been alternating between the 3-5-2 and 4-4-1-1, but has seen better performances with the 4-4-1-1. Based on this, I will be projecting the lineup in a 4-4-1-1, but that is definitely liable to change over five months.
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan – With Tim Howard’s sabbatical, the choice is not a hard one. Despite his club team, Aston Villa’s, woes (they currently are sitting in the relegation zone for the English Premier League), Guzan is playing very well in one of the top leagues in the world. Bill Hamid and Nick Rimando will also likely be included on the roster, but Klinsmann has shown with his recent friendly selections that Guzan is the starter when everyone is available.
Left Back: Greg Garza – With Demarcus Beasley’s national team reign finally coming to an end, the left back spot is wide open. Consistently one of the USMNT’s weakest positions, Garza has looked promising in recent friendlies. Garza is consistent starter for Club Tijuana, who are currently on top of the Mexican Liga MX. Other options include Tim Ream, who has cemented a spot at left back in the Bolton starting XI and Fabian Johnson, who I will discuss later in more detail.
Center Backs: Matt Besler, John Brooks – There are a number of options for the U.S. team at center back, as no one player has really excelled at the position, and there are plethora of players who are of similar caliber. In last year’s World Cup, Klinsmann started Besler in every game, but even his position is up for grabs as he has struggled recently for both Sporting K.C. and the USMNT, receiving criticism from Klinsmann in the most recent friendlies for his “lack of fitness”. However, Besler has been the most consistent of the American center backs, and because of that I think he gets the nod this summer.
The second spot is a battle between John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez, and Geoff Cameron. Cameron and Gonzalez both started two matches at center back in the World Cup, but I think it will be Brooks who comes out as the starter come July. Cameron has only started one game at center back this year for Stoke City, and Gonzalez continues to struggle with consistency issues, having troubles with “switching off” during games. John Brooks, who scored the winner against Ghana in the World Cup, has emerged a started for Bundesliga club Hertha BSC in recent weeks. A young player (he turned 22 less than a month ago) he offers potential that is unmatched among other defenders.
Right Back: Timothy Chandler – Despite often struggling to find national team form, Chandler has consistently excelled as starting right back for Bundesliga outfit Eintracht Frankfurt. With Yedlin yet to make his debut for Spurs, and Fabian Johnson playing further up the field, Chandler currently offers the best option at right back for the U.S. Geoff Cameron offers another option, as he often plays right back for Stoke, but has consistently reiterated his preference to play center back or defensive midfielder.
Center Midfielders: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones – Despite his subpar World Cup performance (by his standards), Michael Bradley still should be one of the first names on the team sheet for the U.S. He has a combination of creativity and energy that is unmatched by any other U.S. player currently eligible for the roster. Many of his troubles can be attributed to him playing a position he is slightly uncomfortable in, as the most attacking midfielder in a 3-man midfield; where he prefers to be a more reserved box-to-box or defensive midfield. If Klinsmann starts him in a deeper role, I expect his Gold Cup to be far superior to his mediocre World Cup.
Jermaine Jones’ situation is a little more complicated. In post-World Cup friendlies, Klinsmann has tried to play Jones at center back – a move that makes sense hypothetically, as aging defensive midfielders are often moved to the back line to compensate their diminishing pace and take advantage of their experience and ability to read the game. However, Jones’ performances for club and country have been far superior at midfielder, where he was one of America’s best performers in the World Cup and nearly led the New England Revolution to the MLS Cup. Unless he shows great improvement at center back, U.S. fans can only hope Klinsmann keeps Jones in the midfield.
Other options include Mix Diskerud, Kyle Beckerman, and Geoff Cameron. Diskerud lacks the quality of Jones and Bradley, making the roster for the 2014 World Cup but not appearing once. It will be interesting to see how he does in his first MLS season, but barring an incredible first couple months, I doubt he will be in the starting XI come July. Beckerman was great in his role as a midfield destroyer in the World Cup, a true #6; but except maybe against Mexico, a midfielder who offers as little going forward as Beckerman does is unlikely to start. Geoff Cameron again is victim to his versatility – good at many positions, but not able to excel for the national team at one. He also might start if Klinsmann favors a three-man midfield come July.
Left Wing: Fabian Johnson – Johnson is one of best American players and has his name cemented on the USMNT team sheet, the only question is where should start. Able to excel at left back, right back, left wing, and right wing, Johnson has played mostly for club team, Borussia Mönchengladbach as a left wing. Playing for a team filled with quality players, currently sitting at 3rd in the Bundesliga, Johnson has not been unable to cement a starting spot, but when he does play it is mostly on the left wing. This seems to be Johnson’s best position, but if there are struggles at full back, look for Klinsmann to move Johnson back to left or right back.
Other options include Brek Shea and Julian Green, who both have played for the national team recently, but shown little consistency, and struggled to get playing time for their club teams. If Johnson were to move back, it is more likely that one of the usual right wingers switched to left wing than either of these two players start.
Right Wing: Alejandro Bedoya – One of the few Americans currently consistently starting in a top European League (FC Nantes in Ligue 1), Bedoya has shined in recent times, starting three out of four World Cup matches, and further solidifying his starting roll for Nice. A true two-way player, he offers both an offensive threat and is discipline in tracking back.
Other options include Graham Zusi and Rubio Rubin. Zusi started three matches in the World Cup, but was not impressive as Bedoya, and has struggled with injury and form post-World Cup. If Johnson is moved back to the defense Zusi is likely to take the left wing position. However, the option of Rubio Rubin is also an intriguing one. The 18-year-old Rubin burst onto the scene this year as a surprise starter for Eredivisie club FC Utrucht. Able to play anywhere along the front-line, or in more of a #10 role, this creative youngster has a lot of potential, but is unlikely to get the start come July. He is undoubtedly one to watch for the future, however.
Second Striker/Center Attacking Midfielder: Clint Dempsey – The USMNT captain is a lock for the starting XI. Fantastic at working of another striker, Dempsey offers attacking skill, movement, and determination unmatched by any other American foward.
Lee Nguyen is another option, but realistically will not take Dempsey’s starting spot before this summer. Nguyen was a finalist for the MLS MVP this past season, and was rewarded by being re-added to the national team picture, earning his first cap in over seven years.
Striker: Jozy Altidore – Altidore has struggled mightily for his club side Sunderland in the past year and a half, but a transfer to MLS club Toronto F.C. will hopefully help reinvigorate Altidore. Despite his club form, Altidore has continued to shine for the national team, and was visibly missed after he suffered a hamstring injury in the first match of the world cup.
Aron Jóhannsson and Gyasi Zardes are both younger than Altidore, and offer something a little different. However, neither of them has shown that their skill sets are more valuable than the physicality and hold-up play Altidore gives the USMNT. Altidore has been a guaranteed starter for the national team when healthy, and that is unlikely to change soon.
Filling out the 23-man roster:
Goalkeepers: Guzan, Rimando, Hamid
Defenders: Garza, Besler, Brooks, Gonzalez, Cameron, Chandler, Yedlin
Midfielders: Bradley, Jones, Diskerud, Beckerman, Johnson, Bedoya, Zusi, Rubin, Nguyen
Forwards: Dempsey, Altidore, Jóhannsson, Zardes
Last cuts: Brek Shea, Julian Green, and Tim Ream. Three very difficult cuts, Shea offers athleticism, versatility, and a strong left foot, but has been unable to convert this to consistently strong performances. If he performs for Orlando F.C, his new club outfit this spring, he definitely could get the call. Tim Ream is another very challenging cut to make, as he has shown he can be a very solid left back; however, with Johnson’s ability to move to left back and excel, it is a position that likely does not need a back-up. Julian Green is my last cut – he offers potential and skills matched by few Americans, but has sparingly been featured in his loan to Hamburg and is now playing with the U-23 squad. Hopefully he will get a run of games before the summer, but if he is unable to even make the 18 for a midtable Bundesliga team, I’m not sure he is deserving for a place in the roster.