Roster Battle: Predicting USMNT midfielders Jurgen Klinsmann will bring to Brazil | Armchair Analyst
This is Part 2 of my three-part series looking at the USMNT roster, trying to break down who'll be called into the final 30-man camp set to be announced on May 13, and then who survives to make the 23-man roster for Brazil, which will be announced on June 2.
Below you'll see my best guess, along with a "chance of making the roster" percentage attached for each player. Opta analyst Devin Pleuler, of Central Winger fame, has implored me to make it clear that the percentage I slapped on each player isn't the product of some algorithm, but is just a gut feeling on my part. Failure to make that distinction would cause Devin – through guilt by association – to become a social outcast at the next Magic: The Gathering tournament or Star Wars cosplay event.
So yeah, the percentage is a gut feeling. No real math has been harmed in the making of this list.
I took a look at our forward pool on Wednesday, which you can see HERE. Now, onto the midfield:
Bradley is Batman... who is Robin?
Clint Dempsey's been pretty decent throughout the month of April, and Michael Bradley's been hurt. But I still think that Bradley is both the best and most indispensible player in the US national team set-up. His is the first name I'd write on the lineup card, and in order for the US to advance out of the group stage, he must play the best soccer of his life.
I've written reams on Bradley's qualities on both sides of the ball – his relentless defensive tracking; his willingness to do the physical, dirty work; his uncanny ability to get to the near post on corner kicks (I'll bet you a dollar that will be crucial).
But I shall never write a poem as lovely as this pass:
Chance Bradley will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
The big issue for the US over the past eight months or so – but, quietly, also for the last four years – is who to pair with Bradley and how, then, they should play. The fact that we're still talking about this as an open issue this close to the World Cup has kept me up nights.
There are two guys in the running to be Bradley's central midfield partner. Jermaine Jones, once of Schalke 04 in the German Bundesliga but now plying his trade in Turkey for Besiktas, has been Bradley's most frequent partner and almost certainly has the inside track on the starting job.
To put it simply: I do not love that.
Jones has great defensive range, but spotty (I'm being charitable) defensive discipline when wearing the Red, White and Blue. He chases potential turnovers – and is actually very good at sniffing them out – but doesn't track back like you'd expect from a veteran with his box-to-box reputation.
That is the worst goal the US gave up in World Cup qualifying, and that is Jones letting Celso Borges waltz right down the middle of the defense. I still can't wrap my head around this play (click the GIF above to get my tactical breakdown of that game, if you'd like to relive a brutal night for the US).
Chance Jones will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
The other guy in the primary central midfield rotation is Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman. He is the steady, predictable option to partner Bradley, the guy who shields the backline, wins the second ball, hits the safe pass with reliable, machinelike precision, and doesn't run himself out of plays.
Beckerman is also capable of game-breaking passes, though that's something he's shown only in glimpses at the international level. Whether he wins the starting job or not will have precious little to do with that, however, and everything to do with what he allows Bradley to do.
— MLS Insider (@Ben_Jata) April 3, 2014
My presumption will be that Beckerman allows Bradley to do a whole damn lot. I'm going to quote myself, from THIS article following the 2-2 USMNT draw vs. Mexico last month:
"If we're desperately looking for a goal this summer, I want Bradley in the final third. He's more likely to create one, or finish one, than pretty much anyone we could bring in off the bench."
Beckerman allows Bradley to do that, and I think the Beckerman vs. Jones battle in camp will be the most interesting one to follow.
Chance Beckerman will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
Maurice Edu has been a box-to-box terror for the Philadelphia Union this season, and will definitely be in the 30-man camp. And if Klinsmann decides he wants one more central midfielder for Brazil, Edu probably has the inside track.
There are a few good reasons to think he'll make the squad. First, he's been there before, having played well in 2010 mostly alongside Bradley. Second, he's shown a ton of versatility in his career, arguably having his best club moments as a forward-thinking box-to-box midfielder and his best country moments in central defense. For what it's worth, I like him best as a pure d-mid, and while he hasn't been used there often, he has both the smarts and defensive toughness to do the job.
Beyond those few obvious reasons, I have one more to mention: I think Klinsmann is going to man mark Cristiano Ronaldo for at least a little bit of the Portugal game. And I think Edu is the player in the US pool best suited to that job.
I wrote a lot about the ins and outs of such a scheme for the upcoming edition of Howler Magazine. We'll run the story here once it's ready for publication.
Chance Edu will make the 23-man roster: 70 percent
If Danny Williams makes the roster, it's because he's a pure d-mid, and Klinsmann wants one of those to back-up Beckerman. Or maybe even to win the job outright – Williams was ahead of Beckerman on the depth chart not too long ago, remember.
The question, though, is whether Williams can be as efficient and selective with his passing, and whether the battery of injuries he's suffered this year at Reading have robbed him of his quickness and overall athleticism. Klinsmann will, no doubt, get a first-hand look in camp.
Chance Williams will make the 23-man roster: 15 percent
The Right Option
There are two guys who've been mainstays for Jurgen Klinsmann on the right side of midfield, and given their current club form there is absolutely no reason to think either won't be on the plane.
We'll start with Sporting KC's Graham Zusi, whose story you should know by now. He went from an NCAA College Cup hero with the University of Maryland to a SuperDraft afterthought to, eventually, the cornerstone of KC's near dynasty (check out MLS Insider's video above and here). He is fit, and relentless, and an asset on both sides of the ball who absolutely does not need to get any personal glory to be happy. In Jurgen's words, Zusi is a "giver."
He takes some flack from certain corners of the fanbase for his lack of sheer footspeed, and it's a fair complaint, since Zusi is rarely a threat to get behind defenses, which limits his ceiling.
But he's been effective for both club and country anyway. Partially that's smarts and skill, but partially that's Zusi's underrated ability to create instant separation on and off the ball:
The touch to focus on in that GIF isn't the shot, but the one before it. Zusi uses creates about half a yard, and then beats the 'keeper.
It's a type of athleticism that doesn't jump out at you. It's also the type of athleticism that wins soccer games.
Chance Zusi will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
Alejandro Bedoya is sometimes the forgotten man of the US player pool – and that really makes me wish some MLS team would sign him this summer as a DP, because the guy is quality. He's a versatile, all-around midfielder who's played on the right, left and center of the 4-4-2, as well as wingback in a 3-5-2.
Bedoya's probably a bit cleaner on the ball than Zusi, which means he'll be more useful in possession against teams clogging the midfield. There won't be much hesitation in slipping him a pass in traffic. Zusi, on the other hand, is a bit more aggressive going forward. If I have one complaint about Bedoya, it's that too often he's failed to kick in a door that the opponent has left slightly ajar.
I'm picking nits, though. As I see it, Bedoya is in direct competition with Zusi for the starting role next month and whoever wins is almost irrelevant. Klinsmann's scheme, be it a 4-4-2, a 4-2-3-1, or even a diamond-4 midfield, requires a ton of running from the right midfield spot. That means both Zusi and Bedoya are going to get significant time in the group stage, perhaps even swapping starts.
Chance Bedoya will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
A Rotating Cast of Characters
The sore spot is left midfield. Either Zusi or Bedoya could shift there, and Fabian Johnson – who I'll get to in Friday's breakdown of defenders – has a decent shot at a starting role here.
But I think it comes down to four guys:
Donovan's bona fides are myriad and varied. The most important bullet point on his resume now is the same as it was a dozen years ago, when he was voted the Best Young Player at the 2002 World Cup: He is a world class chance creator. He sees and completes passes that others don't.
I've always liked Donovan more wide on either side of the midfield than as a second forward, since "wide" is where space is in the modern game. Let him receive the ball out there and then dive toward the middle, or let him dive toward the middle and then receive the ball in stride from Bradley or Beckerman. Either plan is a good one.
The worry with Donovan is that he's not the breathtaking open-field threat he once was, and his ability to track back defensively has suffered as age has caught up to him. Nonetheless, I think he's a lock for the final roster and a starter in Brazil.
Chance Donovan will make the 23-man roster: 100 percent
Davis and Shea are as dissimilar as possible. Davis is a limited athlete, but a superior soccer brain who's deadly on set pieces and cultured in possession. He's not the incredible chance creator he was back from 2006-2011, but has instead taken on more of a ball-circulation role in Houston.
He's tasked, first and foremost, with controling the pace and place of the game.
Shea is a unidirectional freak athlete whose production hasn't matched his potential since about the second half of the 2011 season. But he's made game-winning plays for Klinsmann, including in the Gold Cup final, and offers off-the-ball penetration like no one else in the mix on the flanks:
There might be room for both of these guys on the roster. Nonetheless, it's a fight.
Chance Davis will make the 23-man roster: 60 percent
Chance Shea will make the 23-man roster: 50 percent
Green is the wildest of cards. Based upon what I saw of him in the Mexico game, and in a few brief glimpses last summer with Bayern Munich, it's hard to say that he's ready to contribute to an honest-to-God World Cup campaign.
It's also worth noting that, while Green was scoring for fun in the German fourth tier with Bayern's reserves, he was doing so primarily as a false 9, not as a winger. He's played both spots, of course, but much like Donovan he's not a wide player by natural inclination. He's also not left-footed, which is another strike against him.
But – but! – he is superior going at guys 1-v-1 with the ball on his foot. There just aren't a lot of players in the US pool who can get a defender backpedaling in isolation, then break some ankles and create a chance. Even though dribbling is a low-efficiency play, it's a useful club to have in the bag:
If Jurgen decides it's beyond "useful" and is actually "necessary," Green will be on the flight.
Chance Green will make the 23-man roster: 30 percent
There is one more name I want to mention for this spot, and he has to be considered the longest of long-shots: Montreal's Justin Mapp.
He has been, by a significant margin, the best US-eligible winger in MLS this year. His combination of speed, agility and close control is unique in the pool, and he has added fitness and consistency over the last couple of years. THIS video, which we made last month but which now could contain another dozen or so breathtaking plays, does a good job of showing what I think Mapp could bring to the mix.
Chance Mapp will make the 23-man roster: <5 percent
The Attacking Spark
Bradley's emergence as a top-tier chance creator for both club and country hasn't obviated this role, but it certainly looks less crucial than it did a year ago. It's also worth bearing in mind that, should Klinsmann decide to go with a No. 10 underneath one or two forwards, both Donovan and Dempsey can and have played the role at a really high level.
All that said, I think Mix Diskerud is a good bet to get a spot on the plane. He hasn't really, truly made the spot his – his defensive frailties are too hard to ignore, especially if Klinsmann decides to go with a two-man central midfield. That's been the case more often than not.
The thing about Diskerud, though, is this:
He "tries sh*t" other players in the US pool just wouldn't. And when it comes off, it's beautiful.
Chance Diskerud will make the 23-man roster: 75 percent
Joe Corona found his form at the right time for Club Tijuana after a season spent mostly coming off the bench. He isn't as creative with the ball as Diskerud, and doesn't have the same kind of vision, but he's been very effective at pushing the tempo for the US and, at this time last year, was a favorite of Klinsmann's.
While his skill is his best asset, he's also a better athlete than most of the guys in the mix here. That adds a bit of versatility, and he has, in fact, spent most of his professional career primarily as a wide player.
Chance Corona will make the 23-man roster: 15 percent
Sacha Kljestan and Luis Gil have both gotten some run for Klinsmann in midfield as well. Kljestan has most often been used either on the wing or in a box-to-box role, but he's gotten his looks as an attacking spark as well and hasn't made the most of them.
Gil might have had a puncher's chance if he'd stayed healthy throughout the first two months of the MLS season, then dominated with the newly formed US Under-21 team. But it wasn't to be, and now he's out of game shape and not even definitely on the 30-man roster (though I'd wager he makes it).
Chance Kljestan makes the 23-man roster: 10 percent
Chance Gil makes the 23-man roster: 5 percent
It's a shame that Benny Feilhaber is almost definitely not going to make the Brazil roster, and will quite possibly miss out on the 30-man roster. That Zusi GIF up there is an example of Feilhaber's work – it's an inch-perfect through ball of the kind the US don't often produce.
Here, have another:
Along with the heat-seeking passes, Feilhaber has at long last added elite fitness and defensive chops. At one point in March he put in five 90-minute performances over the course of 15 days, and he hasn't slackened on either side of the ball since.
You could make the argument that he's been Sporting KC's best player this season – and that it's nothing new, just a continuation of his form from last year's playoffs.
But Klinsmann appears to not rate him. Feilhaber wasn't called into camp for the Mexico game in early April, which is as clear as a message can get.
Chance Feilhaber makes the 23-man roster: less than 5 percent (Ed. note: Feilhaber responds)
Come back Friday for a look at the defense in my final installment in this series. I'm not going to bother breaking down the goalkeeping race, since it's Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando unless something insane happens.