What's the biggest question the U.S. needs to answer before Brazil?
With the U.S. now qualified for the 2014 World Cup, over the coming months we at SI.com will periodically ask our group of soccer writers and editors to give their answers to a U.S.-related question. First up: What's the biggest question the U.S. needs to answer before Brazil?
The U.S. has qualified for the World Cup with two games to spare and recently had a record 12-game winning streak, so there are a lot of good things happening right now. But if you take injury concerns out of the equation, I’d say the biggest question looking toward Brazil is a simple one: Is the back line good enough to compete with the world’s best teams?
Barring injuries and suspensions, the back line right now is Brad Evans at right back, Matt Besler and Omar González at center back and DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Is that a group that’s going to hold up against Brazil or Spain—or, for that matter, Russia or old nemesis Ghana? With all four of those defenders playing club soccer in North America, will it hurt not to be playing in the pressure-cooker environment of Europe? There are European-based options: Fabian Johnson can play either fullback spot; Steve Cherundolo has plenty of experience if he can return from injury; and John Brooks has loads of potential as a center back but may be too young for Brazil 2014. My sense is that one or more of those European options will have to be introduced for the Big Show. As we’ve learned in previous cycles, the guys who can get you to the World Cup through CONCACAF aren’t always the same ones you’ll rely on at the World Cup itself.
How can Jurgen Klinsmann get some unsupervised access to the room where FIFA keeps those balls used for the draw?
The U.S. national team's World Cup fate may be tied to the draw and after the good fortune it received in South Africa (there may never be an easier path to the semifinals -- Ghana just didn't cooperate), karma may be ready to deal Klinsmann's team a much tougher hand. If the coach and his boss, U.S. Soccer president and newly-minted FIFA Executive Committee member Sunil Gulati, can't pull off some sort of "Ocean's 11" scheme in Bahia three months from now, then the focus will have to turn to the pitch.
There, the big question facing Klinsmann concerns the future of Fabian Johnson and John Brooks in defense. Further up the field, the U.S. has a surplus of World Cup-ready players. But it's thinner in back, where Klinsmann may have to get creative next summer. Brooks, the 20-year-old Hertha Berlin central defender, is considered a future star but may not be ready for the rigors of a World Cup.
Johnson almost surely will start in Brazil. But whether he's deployed as a flank midfielder or as an outside back will affect the entire U.S. lineup. The 25-year-old usually plays left back for TSG Hoffenheim and arguably is the best wide defender at Klinsmann's disposal. But Johnson also is good in midfield, where his speed, skill and creativity can spark the U.S. attack. Naturally, if Johnson pushes forward, someone like Graham Zusi or Eddie Johnson will have to sit. If he's in back, his full-field impact will be limited.
Klinsmann's decisions may not shape his team's fate as much as those plastic balls, but at least they're in his control.
In addition to sorting out the back line, Jurgen Klinsmann's toughest task may simply be settling on the 23 players he will be taking to Brazil. One of Klinsmann's proudest achievements is that he has increased the scope of the top-tier player pool considerably, using 47 players during this busy year and relying on an abundance of MLS talent along the way. The problem is, less than half of them will make their way to the world's stage.
Obviously, current form and injuries will determine the majority of Klinsmann's roster spots, and it would not be unprecedented for a player to come out of the blue and snatch tickets to Rio from those who were part of the qualification process. Just look at the 2010 cycle: Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle did not feature at all in the two years leading up to the World Cup, but they caught fire in the spring for their respective clubs, showed well in pre-World Cup friendlies and found themselves not only on Bob Bradley's roster, but playing roles in South Africa as well.
Considering Klinsmann's affinity for chemistry and his bountiful list of options, it would be a little more surprising to see a newcomer thrown in to the mix late in this cycle. But what if a player like Juan Agudelo hits his top form at Stoke City over the winter and becomes a wildcard option in the attack? What if World Cup veteran Maurice Edu, who has fallen out of the mix due to his club inactivity, finds new life, either at Stoke or elsewhere? Having too many options for a 23-man roster is a problem most managers would love to have, and it is one Klinsmann is facing.
In the next nine months, Jurgen Klinsmann needs to address fullback issues on both sides. If aging veteran Steve Cherundolo can get and stay healthy, he may still be the best solution at right back. Brad Evans isn't good enough, Timmy Chandler doesn't seem dependable enough, and anyone else is either not playing for their club (Michael Parkhurst, who was good vs. Mexico on Tuesday), playing out of position (Geoff Cameron, et al) or being ignored (more on this in a second).
The left side is more of a strategic quandary. Playing Fabian Johnson there allows Klinsmann an extra midfield spot for one of his better attacking players, but Johnson appears much more comfortable as a midfielder with the U.S. Three group matches of DeMarcus Beasley while also forcing a skilled option to the bench doesn't sound likely. Expect some rotation there in Brazil.
Related to all of this is the curious case of Eric Lichaj, a former Aston Villa fullback now starting at right back for Nottingham Forest in England's second tier. He actually started the 2011 Gold Cup final against Mexico at left back (then moved to right back when Cherundolo was injured) and can play both sides. He hasn't been called into the national team under Klinsmann, regardless of whether he's been healthy and/or playing for his club.
In late August, Klinsmann said Lichaj was on the radar but this "wasn't the time for experimenting." Then Klinsmann started Michael Orozco at right back in Costa Rica and played Parkhurst for 45 minutes last night out of necessity. Lichaj will turn 25 in November. He has pace, a nice mix of defensive and attacking ability, and positional flexibility. Given his other current choices, Klinsmann absolutely needs to give him a look soon.
The success in the Gold Cup and in World Cup qualifying papered over the fact that the U.S. backline is a hot mess. At left back, DaMarcus Beasley has been inconsistent (to put it kindly) against better teams, and yet for whatever reason Jurgen Klinsmann keeps trotting him out there and positioning Fabian Johnson (clearly a better option) elsewhere. The likely choices at right back are injured (Steve Cherundolo), not starting regularly for their clubs (Timmy Chandler/Michael Parkhurst) or not suited to play that position (Brad Evans/Geoff Cameron). The situation at center back is not as dire, but it is also far from settled. Matt Besler seems to have one spot locked down, while Omar Gonzalez, Cameron, Clarence Goodson and John Anthony Brooks vie to start next to him.
All of the center backs have, at times, showed their inexperience or limitations, and the unsettled play out wide has made their auditions harder to judge. So, the question is: Can the U.S. get a lot of players healthy and in-form over the next six to eight months and improve the situation? Getting Chandler back in form would solve a lot, as he can play on the left and the right. Klinsmann should also decide who to slot next to Besler as soon as possible and then use friendlies to grow their confidence and familiarity.
What a difference six months can make. Back in March of this year the U.S. players seemed ill-at-ease with Klinsmann’s style, no matter if they were reserves (Who looked awful in a 0-0 friendly slog vs. Canada in February) or first-choice (The Hex-opening 2-1 loss to Honduras). Since then, the atmosphere around the team has taken a 180-degree turn. In winning the Gold Cup and qualifying for Brazil, the U.S. has now accomplished both of its primary goals for 2013, and they did it while winning a record number of consecutive games and turning more and more fringe players into valuable contributors.
So, for me, the biggest question the U.S. has to answer is how to keep that momentum going with the World Cup kicking off a whole 10 months from now, and only two scheduled matches between now and the end of the year. Klinsmann has built this U.S. run on expanding his options for any given position on the field – how will his team adjust as the pool gets whittled down to 23?
The U.S.'s concerns at fullback are definitely an issue, but let's not forget about the U.S.'s question marks up top. First of all, who (if anyone) is going to be alongside Jozy Altidore? Is it going to be comeback "kid" Eddie Johnson, whose header gave his team the lead over Mexico on Tuesday? Or the injured Herculez Gomez, who is trying to make a comeback of his own? And what about Aron Johannsson, who we've heard so much buzz about but have hardly gotten to see him on the field?
And speaking of Altidore, he's been huge for the U.S. in the Hex, but that was after coming off a career-best season in the Netherlands. Altidore's taken a big risk to go to Sunderland and although it's very, very early to make any judgment on how it's gone, at the moment Sunderland has one point from three games and Altidore has been isolated as the lone striker, not scoring in the two EPL games he's played in. Dealing with trying not to get relegated (if the Black Cats are indeed this poor) is surely not the best way for Altidore to prepare for Brazil.
Can Jurgen Klinsmann find a way to bubble wrap Michael Bradley -- ankles, knees and all -- until next summer? Despite all of the issues, turnover and uncertainty with its back line, the U.S. has won 13 of its past 15 matches. The common denominator in those two defeats: no Bradley. Don't let Tuesday's 2-0 win against a mentally fragile Mexican side disguise the issue: Without its most important and indispensable player, the U.S. had all kinds of troubling maintaining possession and getting forward against CONCACAF sides. How could it possibly survive on the world's biggest stage? The calm, influential, rock-solid presence of Bradley would greatly help minimize the back four's inexperience and questions. If he's not manning the midfield in Brazil, all of the U.S.' other pressing questions -- back four, goal scoring, whatever -- will be overshadowed. The U.S. has little to no chance of advancing past the group stage without him. Agree? Disagree? Have a different opinion? Give your take in the comments below.