As the U.S. men's national team heads into the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying beginning Wednesday night in San Pedro Sula against Honduras, it is hard not to tempt fate, look way ahead and presume that the Americans will punch their ticket to Brazil. A top-three finish in the CONCACAF Hexagonal would do the trick. Fourth place would set up a playoff against the Oceania region winner for another World Cup berth.
For the U.S. men not to complete either task would be a stunning development, but it won't be a given with CONCACAF's profile rising, difficult matches away from U.S. soil looming, and the Stars and Stripes hardly showing the ability in this cycle to defeat opposition comfortably in meaningful games.
That said, the Americans have qualified for every World Cup since 1990 and are expected to continue that streak. Projecting a full roster for 16 months from now is a trifling exercise. Much can change between now and June 2014, and unpredictable runs of form and poorly timed injuries are the ultimate wild cards. Just last cycle, for example, who could have seen Edson Buddle and Herculez Gomez getting on the great runs of form that they enjoyed in the spring of 2010, propelling themselves up the forward depth chart and securing tickets to South Africa? A well-timed goal surge is sometimes all that is necessary to crack the top tier and reach the world's grandest stage despite not playing a major role in the qualifying process.
If there is one thing that coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made clear, it is that he has an affinity for players pushing themselves to the next level, embracing challenges, getting out of their comfort zones and winning starting roles on new, higher-quality teams. Even though a number of U.S. internationals are settled in at their current clubs and faring well, a few will undoubtedly be on the move between now and the time the next World Cup rolls around. How will they fare in their new environments? Will their calculated gambles pay off? Will the coaches who bring them in remain in place? Only time can tell.
So taking all of that into account, here is my prediction for the 23-man U.S. World Cup roster, using current form and potential for the foreseeable future as the predicting factors:
Howard and Guzan are as entrenched as any U.S. player save Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. The two veteran, Premier League backstops are the unquestioned Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, and there's little -- barring injury -- that will change that in the next year and a half. As for the third spot, that is where things are a bit up for grabs.
Klinsmann has preferred Real Salt Lake veteran Nick Rimando to Hamid and Sean Johnson in recent months, and Johnson got the nod over Hamid to start last week's friendly against Canada and to be the third goalkeeper for Wednesday's Honduras match. That said, Hamid, who was prematurely dubbed Howard's true backup by Klinsmann in October 2011, still has -- in a subjective opinion -- the grandest upside of the upcoming crop and the physical tools to become an international mainstay.
Also, if Klinsmann is paying any mind for the 2018 cycle, selecting three goalkeepers who all may not be in the fray by the time the Russia World Cup rolls around would leave the U.S. barren on World Cup experience for the next go around. It is a low-priority detail, but something to keep in the back of the mind. Howard is 33, and Guzan is 28. Rimando is 33, while Johnson is 23 and Hamid 22.
Assuming he takes to the field Wednesday, Chandler will be cap-tied and locked in as a U.S. player, joining Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd as German-Americans to fully commit to the United States. His presence provides more than enough cover in the event that Cherundolo, who will be 35 by the time the World Cup, is no longer a top-choice candidate. In some minds, Chandler is already a better option. Every time doubts arise about Cherundolo, though, he comes out and proves he still has it (e.g. his class showing against Jamaica in September), and his voice of experience helps keep him in the picture as long as he maintains fitness and a regular club role.
Center back is the spot to keep an eye on over the next year. Bocanegra's fight against Father Time and a rising crop of central defenders has his place as both entrenched starter and captain in the balance. His leadership intangibles make him a key figure in the locker room, but he has plenty to prove to Klinsmann, who has shown he is not afraid to make brash roster moves. Cameron, who has displayed his versatility to provide cover anywhere on the back line at Stoke City, has a firm grasp on one center back slot, and Omar Gonzalez will surely press Bocanegra to maintain his peak form.
The central midfield battle will be one to watch in the coming year, with top-dog Bradley and Williams and Jones having a leg up on Edu as the 2013 campaign gets underway. Edu's ability to fill in as a center back increases his value to Klinsmann, and keeps him in the picture as long as he can lock down a full-time place on the club level. His loan to Bursaspor from Stoke City should take care of that until June, but he must find stability after that for the 2013-14 season. As for the wings, Klinsmann's player pool remains shallow in that regard, but the hope is that Shea's move to the Premier League takes his game to another level and that Gatt harnesses his raw skill to become as soccer savvy as he is athletic and intense.
As for central playmaking figures, Benny Feilhaber and Mix Diskerud would offer necessary sparks off the bench with their abilities to create for others, but there are only so many tickets to dole out, and Klinsmann has not demonstrated a true trust in either player. He has been complimentary of them in many ways, but also critical for their lack of toughness and ability to be locked in every play on the field, and it is hard to see either leapfrogging Klinsmann's more trusted central midfielders at this juncture.
The grandest wild cards involve two of the top overall talents the USA has to offer. It is difficult to project Landon Donovan's next month, let alone his next 16, so to that end, the USA's all-time leading scorer remains the ultimate unknown, and plenty hinges on his retirement plan. The same unpredictability surrounds Stuart Holden, whose talent and ability when fit are undeniable, except that he has missed every major U.S. game since the 2010 World Cup, and even for that tournament, he wasn't at full strength and made one cameo appearance as he was recovering from a broken leg. Suffice it to say, the U.S. midfield would be a totally different animal if both players were active, fit and available for selection, but it is tough to pencil them in for 2014 with so much up in the air.
Dempsey, Gomez and Altidore figure to be ironclad locks. They score and create for others with regularity at their clubs, represent the USA's best opportunity at getting on the board and offer complementary elements in their attacking roles, with Dempsey able to deploy either at the top or in a withdrawn, more midfield-based role. The spots behind them, however, remain in flux.
Boyd was a Klinsmann favorite over the spring and summer, but he has faded a bit in recent roster selections. He is in the midst of his club's lengthy winter break now, which would explain his exclusion for Wednesday's match, but his dynamic ability, improvisational mindset up top and sky-high potential make him perhaps the most intriguing U.S. prospect in the entire player pool. Considering Boyd's production level in the infancy of his pro career and his overall tools, the 21-year-old has the makings of becoming an international star over the next decade.
Agudelo is the one with the most to prove in the coming year, whether it winds up being split at Chivas USA and a club overseas or in MLS entirely. He has long been pegged for a breakout for both club and country, but neither has materialized on a consistent basis just yet. Even so, he remains firmly on Klinsmann's radar and is the kind of player that, if he made a move to a European club, won a consistent starting place and produced, he would seize Klinsmann's attention. The 20-year-old's potential is too high to think he would miss out altogether.
So where is Eddie Johnson, who is with the national team for Wednesday's battle with Los Catrachos and was a key figure in cementing the USA's place in the hex? His resurgence from oblivion last year has him firmly in the mix now and on the cusp of the final group -- which in itself is amazing considering where he was just a year ago -- but the soon-to-be 29-year-old Seattle Sounders forward will have to prove that his comeback is sustainable over the long haul to overcome the potential and breakout ability of his young-buck competitors.