Friday November 4th, 2016

On Sunday, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann is expected to name his team for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Mexico (Nov. 11) and Costa Rica (Nov. 15)—the first two games of the CONCACAF Hexagonal. There isn’t as much intrigue surrounding this squad selection as there might be ahead of a tournament or a pair of friendlies. For the former, depth and long-term planning is required. For the latter, new faces, combinations and tactics might be tested. There’s possibility and potential from player No. 1 through 23 (or more).

This time it’s a bit different. Over the course of the year, a clear national team core has emerged. Anyone who follows the U.S. probably could rattle off two-thirds of the likely roster without too much effort. Klinsmann’s real headache comes next week, when he’ll have to choose the 11 men to take the field in Columbus. The Americans’ dominance over Mexico at Mapfre Stadium is well-established, but maintaining it will be no easy task. El Tri is loaded and anxious to end the Columbus curse.

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The pressure on the hosts ratchets up further thanks to the ensuing trip to Costa Rica, where the U.S. is 0-8-2 all-time. Getting good result in Columbus is critical, and that means Klinsmann has little room for error. We have a decent idea of who’s in contention, but it’ll be narrowing that number down to 11 that poses the most significant challenge. As the manager finalizes his team, here’s a look at a few key questions he’ll have to answer before taking the field.

How will Mexico line up?

Klinsmann still hopes to play proactive soccer, but the fact is that Mexico is better with the ball and could dictate the pace of play for considerable chunks of the game. The U.S. has to be well positioned to respond. El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio is notoriously unpredictable and has yet to manage a USA-Mexico match. But he may have dropped a hint or two when naming his team Thursday. Almost all of Mexico’s defenders are primarily center backs, suggesting that Osorio may be planning to spread the field and attack the Americans in a 3-5-2, 3-4-3 or some variation thereof. In the 2013 Columbus qualifier, most of Mexico’s forays were central. The U.S. was able to absorb that pressure.

Klinsmann used the 4-4-2 to good effect at this summer’s Copa América Centenario, and Osorio seems to be planning to face the same. With Clint Dempsey unavailable, American forwards Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood started together in last September’s qualifiers. But Klinsmann may opt to mix it up in order to counter Osorio. A 4-2-3-1, which the U.S. has tried often during Klinsmann’s tenure, would break up that forward partnership but add defensive cover and the opportunity to exploit the space behind Mexico’s flank players. The 4-4-2 puts the forwards in position to play off each other, but it was overrun at times when the USA and Mexico met last year in the Confederations Cup playoff. The chess game has begun.

Who will start in goal?

Brad Guzan and Tim Howard have been goalkeepers 1 and 1A for a while. Guzan started at the Copa América, but the two have split this year’s World Cup qualifiers. While Guzan has had more time behind the current U.S. core, he’s getting no time at Middlesbrough. He hasn’t taken the field for the Premier League club since August. Howard, meanwhile, has been in good form with the Colorado Rapids and will arrive in camp fresh off Sunday’s playoff game against the LA Galaxy.

Who will partner with John Brooks?

The news out of England Friday wasn’t good. Geoff Cameron, a likely starter at center back, was all but ruled out of international duty by Stoke City manager Mark Hughes. Cameron has been dealing with a knee injury. That leaves a spot open next to Brooks, who was fantastic at the Copa América. The easiest answer probably is Omar Gonzalez, who played well in the 2013 qualifier and has become even more familiar with Mexican opposition after 10 months at Pachuca. Klinsmann’s faith in Gonzalez seems to fluctuate, however, and D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum has made strides up the depth chart.

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Will there still be continuity at outside back?

Handling the likes of Jesús Tecatito Corona, Giovani dos Santos or Hirving Lozano will be critical for U.S. success, but both outside backs have questions attached to them ahead of the qualifiers. Klinsmann publicly called out DeAndre Yedlin following last month’s friendly in Washington, telling the press that the right back “struggled” in the preceding two camps. Yedlin has established himself as a starter at Newcastle United, which leads the English Championship. Johnson, meanwhile, might be pushed up to midfield, where his range could provide a boost to the attack. He’s been effective there before. There are no obvious replacements for either but Michael Orozco, Timmy Chandler and Kellyn Acosta are among the possibilities.

Is Jermaine Jones ready?

As much as Klinsmann would love to have the veteran midfield menace patrolling the field at Mapfre Stadium, the fact that Jones (knee) has played only 67 minutes of competitive soccer since early July doesn’t inspire confidence. Klinsmann surely will be paying attention to how much Jones contributes to the Rapids’ attempt to overhaul the Galaxy on Sunday, and likely will call him into camp to get a closer look. Doubting Jones typically isn’t a smart strategy, but these qualifiers might be coming too soon.

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Is Sacha Kljestan ready?

From the national team wilderness to potential playmaker against Mexico in only two months—it’s been an unexpected and wild ride for the New York Red Bulls’ midfielder. But with Michael Bradley likely focusing on defending and establishing possession and Alejandro Bedoya customarily on the flank (if he starts at all), Kljestan very well may be the best option to play underneath the striker in a 4-2-3-1. He led MLS with 20 assists this season and has done very well in a U.S. shirt since his national team return.

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Will Christian Pulisic start?

He’s 18 years old and his two U.S. starts have come against Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba. But we have yet to see a stage that overwhelms the Pennsylvania product. He’s starting routinely in the Bundesliga and Champions League for Borussia Dortmund and has world-class skill and a veteran’s sense of space and timing. And he very well may be the one American player who can consistently beat the opposition on the dribble and force defenses out of position. Will he start? How could he not?

Will Bobby Wood have a role?

Wood’s first season in the Bundesliga has been a roller coaster. He’s scored two league goals for Hamburg. The problem is they’re the only goals the team has scored this season. Playing for a terrible team may be taking its toll—Wood was ejected from last weekend’s loss at Köln and then suspended for three games for elbowing defender Dominique Heintz. Wood is eligible for international duty, but his form and how he’ll fit into Klinsmann’s plans are uncertain. Wood has been more effective for the U.S. in a central role, which raises the original question—does Klinsmann deploy two front-runners or not? The answer likely will dictate whether Wood, who scored against Mexico last fall, starts in Columbus.

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