The U.S. national team depth chart is clearly in transition. It certainly is a tricky time to assign order as the value of "potential" is elevated slightly for the time being.
On the other hand, U.S. coach Bob Bradley and the federation is gung-ho for the 2011 Gold Cup. The winner gets a coveted place in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. So the depth chart can't all be about potential with an eye toward qualification for and (fingers crossed) performance during the 2014 World Cup. A significant amount of "here and now" remains in the current calculus.
With just one match remaining in a busy year, here's where things seem to stand in terms of how Bradley sees the squad:
1. Tim Howard2. Brad Guzan3. Marcus Hahnemann4. Nick Rimando
Analysis: Is Howard still the automatic No. 1? Yep. But is Howard as firmly entrenched as this time last year? Maybe not so much. He's clearly still a great goalkeeper and he has become a trusted team leader. But wouldn't we all like to see him make another big save or two?
If Guzan, 26, claims a starting assignment at Aston Villa or elsewhere, this could become a tighter tug-of-war than many think. Hahnemann, 38, probably won't appear in as many future camps, but he remains a quality 'keeper and Bradley always knows where to find him.
In the long view, Bradley should probably consider looking at young men to begin apprenticing internationally. Chicago Fire rookie Sean Johnson, 21, has looked composed beyond his years in his starts this season.
1. Steve Cherundolo2. Jonathan Spector3. Eric Lichaj4. Marvell Wynne
Analysis: Cherundolo is 31, which means he'll be 35 at the next World Cup. But if we're talking about the best player in the pool right now (and for the coming summer's Gold Cup), there's no one in the pool to seriously challenge the longtime incumbent at right back. And, no, Spector isn't the guy. Not now, at least. He just doesn't have the offensive ideas or the speed to be a force on the attack.
Lichaj's peppy performance against Colombia on Tuesday provides some hope that something more resides in the pipeline. But for now, no one can unseat the best right back the U.S has ever had. Wynne is a distant No. 4 -- especially as he has played center back more often than right back for Colorado this year.
1. Carlos Bocanegra2. Jonathan Bornstein3. Heath Pearce4. Jonathan Spector
Analysis: The starting point here is that this spot, as everyone knows, has been stuck in a ditch for years. Bocanegra is the best choice when defensive matters need extra attention. Bornstein is best when possession and attack are prioritized. Pearce can handle things adequately (although not exceptionally) going either direction. Spector? Meh. But he's just 24, so there's still time to develop.
If Bobby Convey would lose the chip on his shoulder and quit taking little shots at the program in the press, he might squeeze back into the conversation. He's playing in San Jose's midfield at the moment but has played in the back this year. And, of course, he's played there in the U.S. shirt.
1. Oguchi Onyewu2. Carlos Bocanegra3. Clarence Goodson4. Jay Demerit5. Chad Marshall6. Omar Gonzalez7. Maurice Edu8. Michael Parkhurst9. Tim Ream
Analysis: Bradley is showing tremendous faith in Onyewu. Or Bradley is showing a tremendous lack of faith in the men behind him. I'm just not sure which it is. Either way, Goodson's string of unimpeachable performances will press Onyewu, especially if he can't get on the field for AC Milan or someone else.
Demerit's place comes with an asterisk since he's without a side (but leaning toward joining MLS in January). Gonzalez and Ream are guys who will probably find themselves in the (always MLS-heavy) January U.S. camp. Ream has yet to appear in a camp (as Gonzalez has) but his time is surely coming, considering his important place for a New York Red Bulls side doing so well.
Parkhurst is the really intriguing figure here, someone who could potentially climb the depth chart over the next year. Bradley singled out the brainy defender's play lately in Denmark and his 45 minutes in Tuesday's scoreless draw in Philadelphia.
"Tonight you can see some of Michael's ability to read situations and plays," Bradley said. "He sniffs things out quite well. The only question that always exists is can he do that at the highest level."
1. Michael Bradley2. Jermaine Jones3. Maurice Edu4. Ricardo Clark5. Benny Feilhaber6. Stuart Holden7. Jose Torres8. Kyle Beckerman
Analysis: Jones and Michael Bradley are quite close in terms of ability, but Jones' experience should tilt the scale. This is important, too, because some games will demand more offensive creativity through the middle, which might leave room for just one holding type. Few matches have come and gone without Bradley's manning the middle over the last four years, but Jones' introduction could jostle the order.
Edu does OK but still needs seasoning and a few more tricks up his sleeve. He can't command a game or protect possession as Bradley or Jones can. Torres was higher on the list just six months ago, and has a World Cup appearance to prove it. Unfortunately, it wasn't a good World Cup performance. So, opportunity squandered, he has probably fallen on the chart. Holden has probably already lapped him.
1. Landon Donovan2. Clint Dempsey3. Stuart Holden4. Benny Feilhaber5. Jose Torres6. Alejandro Bedoya7. Sacha Kljestan8. Robbie Rogers9. Break Shea
Analysis: These represent the most settled spots on the field thanks to Donovan and Dempsey. Well, unless one of these guys gets dragged up to forward because the cupboard is so distressingly bare there -- something that very well could happen.
Holden is better on the right but versatile enough to play on the left (or centrally, even), and his ability to provide quality free kicks and corner kicks is a bonus. Feilhaber's appearance reminds everyone that fans, media and the federation can bang on about progress, but the pool remains shallow in some spots. It's not that he's bad; he's just really not an outside midfielder. But he becomes an option because guys like Rogers and Torres are dragged down by notable deficiencies.
1. Jozy Altidore2. Clint Dempsey3. Landon Donovan4. Eddie Johnson5. Edson Buddle6. Herculez Gomez7. Robbie Findley8. Charlie Davies9. Justin Braun10. Chris Wondolowski11. Teal Bunbury12. Tristan Bowen
Analysis: I put the cursor behind the No. 1 on this list ... and then just sat and stared at the computer for a few minutes. I was paralyzed by the thought of proclaiming anyone deserving of that moniker. The spot is Altidore's by default -- followed by two guys needed in midfield and then a huge tangle of question marks.
The list is so unstable that even Brian Ching, 32, hasn't completely outlived his usefulness, especially if Bob Bradley wants to play with a target man. We'd all prefer that they hand the man his gold pen, thank him for the service and move on. I'm just not sure that will happen because no one seems up for the job.
Braun did a lot with very little help around him at Chivas USA this year. He looks like a faster, more athletic version of Ching. Six weeks ago, Wondolowski wouldn't be in this conversation any more than long-retired Cobi Jones. But the guy is white-hot, now challenging for MLS Golden Boot. Don't be surprised to see him called into the January U.S. camp.
Perhaps Braun or Wondolowski can bridge the gap between performance in league and international play better than Buddle, Gomez or Findley, all of whom remain in the pool for lack of better options. Bunbury will have to choose between the United States or Canada before qualifiers begin. Davies' status is anyone's guess -- he's back playing but still not 100 percent and off-the-field incidents have also become an issue.
The coach would love to see one or two of these guys seize the opportunity. Speaking specifically of the big pool of forwards, Bradley said: "We continue to size up different guys and different options. The bottom line still is that like a lot of countries in the world, we continue to look for players that we think at the international level can really have a presence and score goals. That's an ongoing search for sure. We feel we've got some different options, but at the same time it's an area where we'd like to improve."