Always, always keep in mind: Results in January friendlies don't mean a thing in the big picture.
They can, however, tell us something about personnel, once properly strained through all the relevant filters. So, allowing for watered-down opposition and for the difficulties associated with performing alongside other "B" and "C" team types, here's how the U.S. player pool may have shifted based on recent 1-0 wins over Venezuela and Panama:
No one every expected much movement on the most stable U.S. position. (Thank you, Tim Howard.) Nick Rimando did demonstrate his continued value as a safety net. Those 45 minutes spent saving the U.S.' bacon against Panama proved he's more than adequate as a No. 3. It gives Jurgen Klinsmann the option of leaving Brad Guzan (or another foreign-based No. 2) at his club in coming qualifiers. Rimando on the bench behind Howard doesn't look bad at all. Otherwise, Bill Hamid was trusted with a start against Venezuela but faded into the backdrop with very little to do. Sean Johnson did little wrong in his half against Panama, hardly besieged his 45 minutes as Rimando had been previously.
Bottom line, A.J. DeLaGarza missed a big opportunity. In fairness, he was a center back last year on Los Angeles' championship side, so perhaps DeLaGarza was a duck out of water at right back, where he was bequeathed all 180 minutes. But that's where he'll be as an international; he needed to put a strangle hold on this opportunity and refuse to let go. Instead, he was timid about getting forward and unsure on defensive positioning.
Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst were surely the biggest beneficiaries of 180 January minutes. Neither was challenged much against Venezuela, but were usefully stretched against Panama's pair of quality, canny forwards. Hard to say if the they were troubled by those sneaky little runs from Panamanian strikers due to their own faulty awareness, or because the outside backs and defensive midfielders just weren't applying sufficient pressure in the right spots (which they weren't). Cameron's questionable ejection notwithstanding, he seems most likely (among the U.S. non-regulars) to nudge into the 18 for next month's trip to Italy. Parkhurst still struggled occasionally with the physical matchups but passed the test otherwise.
Heath Pearce? See DeLaGarza above and also file this one under "opportunity lost." Handed the start against Venezuela, he just didn't attack the opportunity (or the left side) with enough authority. Where was the determination? Where was the will and want-to in imposing himself on the game and connecting with the top offensive player on the field, Brek Shea? In came Zach Loyd, who was strong over 18 minutes.
That short run-out earned Loyd a start against Panama, where he looked somewhat tactically naive. Some sharp deliveries (including one that led to a goal) salvaged something, but the FC Dallas man must polish up the rough spots, especially on-on-one defending, to make any real headway. His age (24), his willingness to get forward and the ongoing, relative weakness at left make means he's still hanging on in the big game.
Like DeLaGarza and Pearce, Graham Zusi had his hands on the clearest of missions: to lay it all out there, to press the game and force Klinsmann to do some serious thinking about his place in the depth chart. Also like DeLaGarza, Zusi was asked to man a less familiar spot. The outside role in a 4-2-3-1 and then in a 4-4-2 certainly isn't tailor-made for Zusi, who is better suited his spot at Sporting Kansas City, on the inside of a central triangle. He didn't have to be perfect in the U.S. shirt, but needed to cook up a little more than he did. The SKC midfielder appeared lost too often, and other than a competent finish in Panama (while completely unchallenged) Zusi wandered, leaving a mark neither offensively not defensively in the contests.
Meanwhile, mark down Shea as "not bad, but nothing special." He's not ready to take over matches, clearly needful of better players around him to combine and shine. Not like that should surprise anyone. Shea's off-the-ball movement is OK, but can only be as effective as the surrounding players' competency at identifying and targeting those runs.
After Cameron and Parkhurst, Jermaine Jones may have gained the most -- never mind that he remains the same yellow card waiting to happen. Questions will persist about whether the Bundesliga-bred midfield destroyer and his reckless ways can be trusted, questions that Klinsmann must think on long and hard. And Jones really must prize midfield possession a little more; those maddening turnovers will prove disastrous at some point.
On the other hand, Jones had moments of dominance over two starts, breaking up attacks and dictating the game the way a captain and commanding figure should, especially one surrounded by youngsters so light on international experience. All in all, he probably moved up in Klinsmann's pecking order of defensive-minded midfielders. Now it's a log jam of all log jams, with Jones, Maurice Edu, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley in a tight bunch, all jockeying for position atop the field.
Ricardo Clark reintroduced himself into the conversation with a passionate, late display and that crackerjack finish in Phoenix. From there, however, Clark couldn't exploit the big opportunity, failing the tactical test and lacking the basics as one half of a central, defensively-oriented tandem in Panama.
Jeff Larentowicz was capable and professional (once as a starter, once off the bench) and did little to move his arrow up or down after Kyle Beckerman's injury provided the on-ramp of opportunity.
Hard to say where Benny Feilhaber stands among the player pool's passing and possession specialists. The New England Revolution man, in his first appearance of the Klinsmann era, must be further ahead of where he was previously, at the very least. With Stuart Holden and Jose Torres still in various stages of injury recover, and with Freddy Adu suspended somewhere along the success-failure continuum as only he can be, Feilhaber probably improved his standing, although not measurably. Those silly temper tantrums against Venezuela didn't help.
Write Teal Bunbury's name on the lengthy scroll of utterly underwhelming strikers. What good is speed if he can't threaten to get behind defenses? What good is power if he can't adequately tie up and hold off defenders with more skillful target play? He's still raw, with plenty to learn. This is where Klinsmann's ability to nurture and elevate athletic ability into something more (especially at forward, considering Klinsmann's playing days) can be tested. For now, Bunbury just isn't there. Perhaps more seasoning with the U-23s can move the needle.
Same assessment for C.J. Sapong, who was seen late in both matches, only he may be further behind than Bunbury. Chris Wondolowski demonstrated a certain usefulness, but perhaps only in selected spots. His greater effect came versus Venezuela as a late-game different-look type, someone whose resolve and hurly-burly could bother defenses; he was far less bothersome as a starter versus Panama.
On the other hand, given the painfully shallow choices (and downright alarming depth) at front-runner, future chances will surely be handed to one, two or perhaps all three strikers. A big start to the Major League Soccer campaigns could still mean a call-up come the June qualifiers.