The World Cup kicks off in Brazil in five months. And with the group-play pairings already set, the U.S. knows who it will play, where it will play and when it will play.
Still to be determined, however, is who will be in uniform when all that happens, which leaves Coach Juergen Klinsmann and his staff with several difficult decisions to make between now and early June, when the team leaves for Sao Paulo. But with just one FIFA match day on the international calendar this spring, those decisions will necessarily be influenced by what the players did last year, what they do with their club teams this year and what many of them do during the national team's winter camp, which began last week.
"We're looking at the overall picture. The first game when we came in, since then until now there's been an identification process," says assistant coach Martin Vasquez. "There are some positions, if the players continue to perform the way they've done in the past, they have earned those positions.
"But it's open. There are injuries. There are bad performances. There are some things that you cannot control."
Yet there are some certainties as well. Barring a catastrophe, Tim Howard will be in goal, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler will be in central defense and Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley will be in the midfield when the U.S. takes on Ghana on June 16 in Natal. Several other spots are near-locks.
So while Klinsmann and Vasquez will continue pushing the idea of an open competition to keep their players on their toes, as many as 15 of the 23 spots on the World Cup roster appear secure.
"There's definitely spots to be had," says Besler, who came to last January's winter camp having never played for the national team but returned this year as a probable World Cup starter. "Most of the guys coming in here have the attitude where if they play well enough, they could be on the roster in Brazil.
"But I'm not taking any of that for granted. I've got to prove myself every day. And I've got to compete and show Juergen every day that I deserve to be there."
So who will be America's Boys in Brazil? Here's how the U.S. World Cup roster is shaping up:
On the plane: Tim Howard, Brad Guzan
On the bubble: Nick Rimando
Howard looked shaky at times last summer but he has returned to form with a league-best nine shutouts in 20 Premier League matches for Everton. Klinsmann will have an interesting decision to make for his third keeper though. Does he take the 34-year-old Rimando, clearly the best alternative to Howard and Guzan, or does he bring along a younger keeper such as Sean Johnson or Bill Hamid to give them valuable World Cup experience?
On the plane: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley, Geoff Cameron, Clarence Goodson
The backline is the biggest question mark for the U.S. Gonzalez and Besler, both in their first full season with the national team in 2013, were spectacular at times but also committed crucial errors. That's made the experience of Beasley, whose 113 caps is second to only Landon Donovan among active players, a vital presence at left back. Cherundolo, aiming for his fourth World Cup, would bring valuable experience on the other side but three surgeries on his left knee in 2013 have made him something of a dark-horse candidate.
On the plane: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Eddie Johnson, Landon Donovan
On the bubble: Kyle Beckerman, Fabian Johnson, Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona
Although Donovan and Eddie Johnson typically play upfront, if Klinsmann goes with his favored 4-2-3-1 formation those two could see a lot of time as attacking midfielders rather than as forwards. Eddie Johnson, a big presence in front of the net, has proven extremely valuable coming off the bench, which could open a starting spot for Zusi. Fabian Johnson's German pedigree is a big plus in Klinsmann's mind, as is Diskerud's experience in Norway.
On the plane: Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson
Altidore's poor form for Sunderland of the English Premier League — he's lost his starting job and has scored just once in EPL play — probably won't erase a phenomenal 2013 that ended with him being named national team player of the year. Johannsson, who made his U.S. debut in August, has seen his stock rise with a team-leading 10 goals in 16 games for AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eredivisie, which may earn him a transfer to the EPL. Donovan looms as an attractive starting alternative to both youngsters while Gomez and Magee — both solid, versatile veterans — bring experience that could also help offset the youth of the 24-year-old Altidore and the 23-year-old Johannsson. Wondolowski, another big target on set pieces, could be redundant if Eddie Johnson makes the team as expected.
"I wouldn't say that there's 23 open spots," Besler summed up. "But there's definitely spots to be had. There's a lot to play for still for everybody."
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