By Jacob Klinger
Strong performances by the U.S. men's national team in its upcoming home-and-away set with Jamaica will practically send the squad through to the final Hexagonal round. Anything less and the final two qualifying fixtures will be beyond squeaky.
Jurgen Klinsmann's roster of 25 men tasked with giving the U.S. some breathing room atop Group A was released Sunday afternoon. And while there are vacancies, those holes present true opportunities for Klinsmann's roster to evolve.
Goalkeepers (Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Sean Johnson and Nick Rimando)
Barring injury Howard will start, Guzan will warm the bench and Johnson and Rimando will take turns looking on with the other four players not dressing for their respective games. Johnson will hold down the No. 3 spot for the Jamaica match and Rimando will do the same in Columbus when Johnson returns to the Fire.
The U.S. defense is by no means quick, but Howard's kept a clean sheet in eight of the eighteen qualifiers he's played. His presence alone should be good for a point somewhere in the impending 180 minutes.
Defense (Carlos Bocanegra, Geoff Cameron, Steve Cherundolo, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, Fabian Johnsin, Michael Orozco Fiscal, Michael Parkhurst, Jonathan Spector)
Fabian Johnson has to start. Jamaica is too fast for him not to. Cherundolo is also a near-lock with Parkhurst and Spector demonstrating commendable utility, though likely doing so from the bench. Edu can help too, but I prefer him in midfield. It is his natural position.
The only question mark for the first match is who partners Bocanegra in the center of defense. Cameron's relative speed should give him the nod over the undeniably clunkier Goodson, yet the Brondby captain did shut Jamaica out in last year's Gold Cup semi-final. If either of Cameron or Goodson play decent physical defense and listen to Bocanegra then history should repeat itself in that regard. Still, one can't help but see the match at The Office as a very real chance for Cameron to engrave his name in Klinsmann's XI.
Just how well Johnson and Cherundolo get forward, and track back, is crucial. With Dempsey hardly match fit and Donovan absent, extra width and crosses are required to feed this team's predatory stable of forwards. That said, expecting the U.S. to pin Jamaica into its own half is naive. Johnson's ability to correctly pick his spots is bound to be under the microscope.
Midfield (Kyle Beckerman, Joe Corona, Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones, Jose Torres, Danny Williams, Graham Zusi)
Jones will start. His eight games and 697 minutes in 2012 all but guarantee it. His range and club form do guarantee it. Beckerman and Edu will battle in camp for the spot beside Jones in midfield. I see Beckerman getting the nod. He's played all summer and is the good kind of tighter in midfield. One bad half changes that however, and Edu is bound to get on the field at some point in these qualifiers. It remains to be seen just how creative of a role Jones will be given. Late runs into the box are just fine, but if he's pulling the strings then something is off. One thing is certain, the U.S will miss Michael Bradley.
Perhaps the defining question of this roster is 'can Dempsey start?' The answer is Dempsey can do whatever he wants, except seal a transfer to Liverpool. Doubts remain regarding his match-fitnesss after Fulham barred him from first team training, yet Dempsey's combination of vision, dribbling ability and goal-scoring instincts are unmatched in the American player pool. Someone has to be the creative engine of this midfield and Dempsey will gladly do the job in the No. 10 spot.
On either side of Dempsey are opportunities for the relatively unproven. Visions of flanks manned by Gatt and Shea are terrifying. Even fans of the U.S. must be scared by the collective pace not seen since the prime years of Donovan and Beasley. Yet Gatt withdrew. His replacement - Pontius if it were my call - could see significant minutes replacing Dempsey while Shea's familiarity with Klinsmann gives him a starting spot in front of Johnson. Expect Klinsmann to clog the right side of midfield with Williams. He won't provide much going forward, but he won't allow anything Cherundolo can't handle going back.
Zusi can spell someone in the middle or pinch in on the right. Corona needs to break the midfield mold in whatever minutes he can get. Right now he's a square peg. Torres' best chance to run the game from deep likely won't come until Sept. 11 in Columbus.
Forwards (Jozy Altidore, Terrence Boyd, Clint Dempsey, Herculez Gomez)
The form of these strikers, especially Altidore and Boyd makes it incredibly difficult not to play a 4-4-2. And while Altidore and Boyd - or Gomez - can surely form a potent strike tandem, they play too similarly for their clubs to expect them not to get in each other's way. At least for the first match.
Boyd spent the summer tearing it up for Rapid Vienna and just bagged a poacher's brace against Mattersburg. Altidore is a changed man, passing and moving and leading the Eredivisie in scoring. Gomez does read an offside trap like no American other, but Altidore's nightmarish matchup potential for defenders gives him the nod. Either Boyd or Gomez can come on late - again, Dempsey probably should not play 90 - and truly add to the offense.
I don't expect it to happen in Kingston, or Columbus, but all three strikers are after the chance to convince Klinsmann they are the go-to guy in the 4-5-1 hybrid.
HAVE YOUR SAY ... Who would you start? Who is this roster missing? Mix? Got predictions? Tell us in the Facebook comments section below.
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and the Daily Orange. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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