As the Gold Cup celebrations make the rounds for all members and fans of the USMNT, it is time to start looking forward for the tournament that actually matters: the World Cup. A ten game winning streak culminating in a 1-0 victory over Panama seems to point towards improvement for Klinsmann and his squad, but I still see it as merely a tune-up. The squad is still in the midst of having to select the perfect starting eleven, some big-time players were not even at the Gold Cup, and the competition at the Gold Cup was mediocre at best.
Although it is impossible for even a curmudgeon like me to not see that the future is a bit brighter than it has been and that some of the fringe players are starting to shine through, there are still some doubts that need addressing for this team.
One: Even though Brek Shea recently suffered an injury during a Stoke friendly, he will definitely be healthy when WC selection is happening. Do you stick with a player that scored two crucial Gold Cup goals despite the fact that his international performances have typically seemed poor? For me, he is still deep bench material. Both of his goals were poorly taken, with the second goal being so simple that even a U-6 player could have score it. Although he does provide a little width for the team, it will take a strong season in the EPL for Shea to force his way into the starting 11, but I still think he will only be seen as an impact sub in 2014.
Two: Where will the spark come from if Landon Donovan is not still enjoying the benefits of whatever “fountain of youth” he is currently drinking from? Although we hope Dempsey, Altidore, and Bradley’s reintroduction to the squad will provide other spots for the spark to come from, Donovan still seems to be the fulcrum that pushes the younger players to play at a really high level. Although we can only hope that any more whiffs from Donovan result in goals for the USMNT, Donovan will be a year older at the WC and it will be very tough for him to maintain this vein of form for a full year.
Still, there have been some things that I hope Klinsmann is able to keep in place for 2014.
One: The USMNT may be entering the WC with actual squad depth for the first time. Nick Rimando looks like a legitimate #2 behind Tim Howard and his performance at the Gold Cup should have definitely sealed his entry into the WC squad. Omar Gonzalez is one of the first usable defenders that is not moments away from being thirty or older for the USMNT is a long time. He won every aerial ball after being subbed in for the Gold Cup final and his entry into the USMNT has been long overdue. The midfield was closing down on every ball with Mikkel Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya establishing themselves as definite midfield choices for this squad. Factor in that Diskerud is 22 and it definitely means that there is a future set-up in place for the USMNT.
Two: There is actual competition for what players will be on the pitch as a striker for the USMNT. Eddie Johnson did miss a decent chance in the Gold Cup Final, but his tournament was impressive. Wondolowski was scoring for fun, but he still has been untested against big international talent. If he maintains his scoring for the rest of the WC build-up, then he might still get into the squad. The one thing that Jozy Altidore has not had for his spot before is competition…allowing him to skate through the first few years of his USMNT without having to worry too much about his selection. However, with Altidore succeeding and starting to look like our first-choice striker, it can only benefit him to have a few players trying to take his place away from him.
I believe that a 1-0 victory over Panama in the final will be more important than the 6-1 scorelines that they saw for the first part of the tournament, especially since it means that they can grind out a victory. If they continue to move forward in a positive manner and if Klinsmann can still make the team look consistently better every time that they hit the pitch, a decent groundwork may be in place for 2014. There is still plenty of time between now and the World Cup, and we all hope that Stuart Holden can be a part of the World Cup experience by then, but only time will tell if this USMNT may finally get us into major contention…here’s hoping…