By George Quraishi
Wondomania has subsided, but our hazy read on the U.S. national team and what its joyful domination of the Gold Cup might mean for our chances in Brazil is still highly amusing. After I wrote last week that the opposition has been so bad that you can't make any real judgments (then said pretty much the same thing to Will Leitch a couple days later), another soccer writer told me that, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, he thought it was refreshing to hear someone say that the U.S. team just isn't that great. Another told me to lighten up. I sympathize with both of them.
I crave more serious coverage of the U.S. soccer team, and that inevitably means a more realistic assessment of our ability. There's nothing wrong with being good but not great. There's nothing wrong with admitting that we have a ways to go before we're legitimately and consistently competing with the best teams in the world. Coverage like Brian Straus' Sporting News bomb comes to mind. When it was published in March, some people worried it would incinerate the team at a crucial moment in World Cup qualifying, as though the greater destruction would be caused not by the thoughts of disgruntled players, but by the airing of them to the public. Yet the most disturbing thing in the story wasn't the ill will some players felt toward a coach who had just benched the team's long-serving captain, but the clear sense that some of these guys didn't see the necessity for change. One complained to Straus about Klinsmann's emphasis on nutrition and fitness and said -- apparently without irony -- that "the Pelés and Maradonas in the world weren't doing all these things."
Take a minute to let that sink in.
I'm sure Klinsmann will be happy to revisit his training regime just as soon as he has a Pelé or Maradona suiting up for him. But, given that a lot of U.S. soccer journalists are fans of the national team, I know I shouldn't be surprised by predictions of World Cup glory -- or at least participation-for Wondo, or by the question of whether this Gold Cup squad could take Klinsmann's first choice team over 90 minutes.
It's a fun hypothetical, but the more important question is this: which players from the Gold Cup will get bumped up to the first team and how will they integrate on the field?
Nick Rimando has played well enough to remain the third-string goalkeeper in 2014. The U.S. has never drawn its starting World Cup goalkeeper from MLS, and Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid will probably need to get some European seasoning before they're eventually ready to challenge in the next cycle.
DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez already play in Klinsmann's first team. I'm still not convinced by Gonzalez, who seems to lose his concentration at least once per game in a critical moment. One player who is not on the Gold Cup roster -- he's injured, but wasn't named to the provisional roster even before his injury -- is George John. Aside from Michael Orozco Fiscal, he and Geoff Cameron will likely flesh out the contenders for center back.
Stu Holden's physical struggles are well documented, but his vision never suffered and his passing has been among the best in the tournament. Joe Corona, Jose Francisco Torres, and Mix Diskerud should all be invited back; I doubt they'll push out any of the current starters, but their passing and control in tight spaces fit well with Klinsmann's tactics, which are evolving.
The key to this evolution is in the center of the field. Klinsmann had been playing three central midfielders who had similar characteristics: Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, and either Danny Williams, Maurice Edu, or Kyle Beckerman. Beckerman has been outstanding in the Gold Cup, but it's telling that he is the only outright holding midfielder on the roster. It seems the coach is becoming less cautious. I think we'll continue to see this change as World Cup qualifying progresses, with a more technical player in the middle playing ahead of Bradley and Jones.
The return of Landon Donovan will be the biggest difference to the first-choice team. He has usually played on the right side of midfield, but the emergence of Graham Zusi on the right wing and Jozy Altidore's return to form up top -- which are related phenomena -- could mean that Donovan is better used elsewhere. Altidore has scored a goal in each of his last four games with the national team. The first two were from crosses by Zusi, who was suspended for that third match but then returned to make the second-to-last pass on the fourth. (I should add a quick conflict of interest disclaimer here-my father's agency represents Zusi.) The highlights speak for themselves. Both he and Altidore have played wonderfully.
But Donovan and Dempsey remain our two most dangerous attackers. Dempsey has been slotting in just behind Altidore, playing more as a withdrawn forward than an attacking midfielder. The last open spot for Donovan is on the left wing, and the popular view was that he could fill it while Zusi remains on the right. I think that's how it could look on paper, but on the field it might function differently. Both candidates for left back, Beasley and Johnson, are speedy, skillful players. Donovan could line up more as an inverted winger, coming inside and allowing the left back space to join the attack.
Whatever the solution, Donovan has proven, again, that we need him on the field. For all my Gold Cup gloom, it looks like we finally have options that will leave some very talented players -- Stu Holden, Eddie Johnson, and yes, even Wondolowski -- without a starting spot. The U.S. national team has never been about slotting players into a rigid formation. We're most effective when we can get the best, most balanced eleven players on the field, because we still don't have the "Pelés and Maradonas in the world" to build a team around.