The final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying competition is kicking off earlier than ever, and the U.S. national team has no choice but be in form at the outset and hit the ground running. Its 10-game schedule kicks off with two of the biggest matches of the Hexagonal—at home against arch-rival Mexico (Friday) and then away versus Costa Rica (Nov. 15). A good start will put the Americans in great shape on the road to Russia. A slow one may wreck the momentum generated this summer and fall and leave the U.S. almost no margin for error next year.
So coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Sunday afternoon named a squad fit for the occasion. His 26-man team will gather in Ohio late Sunday and Monday (23 may dress for games). It features 15 World Cup veterans, 20 with qualifying experience and nine who’ve already faced Mexico at the Columbus Crew’s Mapfre Stadium, where the U.S. is 4-0-0 all-time against El Tri.
The most notable absence is defender Geoff Cameron, who’ll remain in England while nursing a knee injury. While Klinsmann searches for the right partner for center back John Brooks, he’ll welcome back midfield workhorse Jermaine Jones, who’s been out of national team action since June, and forward Aron Jóhannsson, who’s recovered from a long-term hip injury. They’ll join a nearly-intact U.S. core, from captain Michael Bradley to 18-year-old star Christian Pulisic.
Here’s a look at the roster:
Brad Guzan (Middlesbrough), Ethan Horvath (Molde), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), William Yarbrough (Club León)
While Howard has been playing well in Colorado, Guzan has been on the bench at Middlesbrough. That leaves the 2010 and 2014 World Cup starter the favorite to be in net next Friday. Klinsmann declared Howard his No. 1 goalie on Sunday afternoon. Howard’s 32 qualifying appearances are the most on the current squad and he’s faced Mexico 10 times, including the 2–0 win in Columbus in 2013.
Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
Absent Cameron, Gonzalez or Birnbaum would appear to be the most likely starters alongside Brooks (who’s still never played in a qualifier). Gonzalez is a regular at reigning Liga MX champion Pachuca and was outstanding in the 2013 game against Mexico. Birnbaum would be more of a surprise, but he’s continued to do well when called upon. The D.C. United defender is one of several who can play either in the middle or as an outside back. Besler and Orozco also have done double duty.
Johnson and Yedlin are expected to start at left and right back, respectively—that is unless Klinsmann is tempted to push Johnson up into midfield. But the Mönchengladbach man is listed as a defender on this roster, and that’s where Klinsmann has played him when the stakes have been highest.
Carter-Vickers, 18, is getting his first call-up to the senior national team. He’ll get his first exposure to the qualifying environment while he continues to try to break through at Tottenham. FC Dallas midfielder Kellyn Acosta has featured for Klinsmann recently at outside back but has been left behind this time.
Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Julian Green (Bayern Munich), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Caleb Stanko (FC Vaduz), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
Jones started for the Rapids in Sunday’s MLS Cup playoff game against the LA Galaxy, so it’s tough to see him not playing a role against Mexico and Costa Rica. Since returning from a knee injury he played only 67 minutes for Colorado before Sunday, but he remains a one-of-a-kind force who Klinsmann values greatly. Jones’s availability may have knocked center midfielders Perry Kitchen and Danny Williams off the manager’s invite list. The absence of the injured Kyle Beckerman also is a hint that Jones is ready to go (perhaps Williams or Kitchen would’ve been called in as a replacement).
The international resurgence of Kljestan and Green appears to be complete. They made the most of their post-Copa América opportunities. Kljestan notched two goals and two assists in four games and Green scored twice in two. Kljestan, an MLS MVP finalist, is the only true central playmaker on the squad. Assuming the facial injury he suffered Sunday doesn't sideline him, Kljestan could start—especially if Klinsmann opts for a 4-2-3-1 formation. Green and Pulisic offer enticing attacking options on the flank. Bedoya is a more versatile two-way presence and although he was up-and-down with the Union this fall, he’s been a player who Klinsmann has counted on in the past.
Gooch is a quick, skillful attacker who showed well in last month’s friendly against New Zealand and Stanko is back after making a brief appearance in the September qualifiers. Other than Kitchen and Williams, the most notable absence is Portland Timbers playmaker Darlington Nagbe, who had turned down a U.S. invite last month.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Aron Jóhannsson (Werder Bremen), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Bobby Wood (Hamburger SV)
Altidore is in excellent form and surely will start—the question is whether he’s alone up top or paired with Wood. Morris has had an outstanding rookie season in Seattle and is the clear third choice. He already has a goal against Mexico on his international resume. With Clint Dempsey (heart condition) and Gyasi Zardes (foot) unavailable, the fourth spot likely would have gone to Chris Wondolowski. But the veteran striker isn’t fully healthy, and that opened the door for Jóhannsson.
Before Wood and Morris came on the scene, Jóhannsson appeared to be in frame to start regularly as a forward who was comfortable in tight spaces and could create scoring chances off the dribble. But he’s been unable to stay healthy. A bad ankle limited him at the 2014 World Cup and his 2015 transfer to Werder Bremen was tarnished by the hip injury, which require surgery that October. Jóhannsson finally returned to the field this August. He converted a penalty kick in an early September Bundesliga game against Augsburg but a week later, he was ejected from a game in Mönchengladbach for allegedly cursing at the referee. Jóhannsson denied the charge but still was suspended for an additional two matches. He finally returned to action two weeks ago. Jóhannsson, 25, hasn’t played for the U.S. since a September 2015 friendly versus Brazil.