By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 12, 2016) US Soccer Players - The USMNT returns to action two weeks from Friday with a World Cup qualifier at Guatemala on March 25. That means USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann's next round of call-ups should come in barely a week's time.
As has so often been the case during his time in charge, there's ample space for intrigue in this selection process. The absence of Jermaine Jones serving an MLS suspension that carries over into National Team duty, injury doubts in several positions, and Klinsmann himself noting that the timing of the MLS season influences his selections here adds up to a recipe for change. That leaves room for a surprise or two, in the roster as well as the lineups.
Here's a look at a few areas where the USMNT technical staff have to make tough decisions
Selection: Who's a kid this month, and who isn't?
On the same dates the senior squad play Guatemala, the US U-23s face Colombia in the home-and-home playoff series that will determine who earns the final spot in the Olympic soccer tournament in Rio this summer. With that in mind, underage players made up a substantial chunk of the January camp invites, an experiment that seems to have gone well.
In some cases all this would lead to the obvious conclusion. Anyone in the USMNT player pool who's age-eligible plays for the U-23s. Klinsmann picks from the rest, even for a World Cup qualifier.
As always seems to be the case under Klinsmann, it's not so simple.
Klinsmann is quite fond of several of his youngsters, including Jordan Morris, DeAndre Yedlin, and to some extent even Jerome Kiesewetter. Will he consider them essential to the task of beating Guatemala? Is their time better spent salvaging Olympic qualifying, something all involved in US Soccer have stressed as a major priority for more than a year?
Klinsmann generally writes Jones's name in ink when he's available, so captain Michael Bradley will have an alternate partner – maybe even two – in the engine room for this month's back-to-back clashes with Los Chapines.
Reading standout Danny Williams might provide a reasonable facsimile, but a like-for-like replacement seems difficult here. There's no one else quite like Jones in the player pool, in terms of personality, mentality and skillset. That fact might seem to nudge the coaches' hands towards a five-man midfield where two players could assist Bradley instead of just one.
Given Guatemala's tendency to sit deep and defend stubbornly, often downright cynically, a creative attacking presence like Mix Diskerud or Lee Nguyen would be useful. However, with Klinsmann emphasizing experience in his recent remarks to the media, will he consider Nguyen ready for a start in the qualifying cauldron? You can say the same of Darlington Nagbe. Yet here we have an ideal opportunity for the coach to prove his trust, against a relatively manageable opponent, in players who've brought something different and useful to his squad.
Positioning a pure #6 to stand guard behind Bradley can sometimes have a liberating effect for the captain, and he's quite familiar with Kyle Beckerman in that regard. At USMNT level, “KB5” has prospered against reactive opponents who allow him time to distribute the ball and dictate the tempo of the game, and his advancing years have only sharpened this intellect.
Anyone can play left back, or so said Klinsmann in a lighthearted moment earlier in his tenure. Yet in practice, the search for an optimal option at this problematic spot hasn't been so easy for him. He coaxed DaMarcus Beasley out of international retirement to keep the role filled last year, plugged Tim Ream in during the fall, and started young Kellyn Acosta there in both of this year's friendlies. Ream isn't normally a left back and Acosta plays in midfield at club level.
Yedlin's rapid rise would seem to have provided the US with a regular starter on the right defensive flank for years to come. Still, his National Team coaches seem persistently skeptical of his suitability as their right back, deploying him in a more advanced wing role more often than not. Fans may be accustomed to seeing a revolving door at left back, but stability was also fleeting on the starboard side last year. 2015 saw Birnbaum, Yedlin, Chandler, Evans, Orozco, Cameron, and Johnson filling the role.
Fabian Johnson has spent lots of time on both sides of the USMNT defense. But his explosive attacking exploits for Borussia Monchengladbach this season have forced Klinsmann to admit that the versatility of “FabJo” has at times kept those creative traits from being exploited to the fullest for his country.
"Obviously you like to kind of continue having a player play at the same role in the national team that he’s playing in his club team to just keep him consistent, keep him confident. But sometimes it’s not doable because of maybe problems in other positions," Klinsmann said in a recent Q&A with ussoccer.com. "You know [Johnson] can play right back and left back as well, and on the wing in midfield both sides as well. That gives us a good feeling that we can switch over to that role."
Johnson played on the left side of midfield in the first two qualifiers of the current round. The time may have come to let him become a master of one trade rather than a jack of all.
More from Charles Boehm: