There’s officially less than a month left until the CONCACAF Gold Cup kicks off, and probably less than 10 days left until US head coach Bob Bradley names his squad.
And this is the Gold Cup that counts. Win this one, and you get to go to the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil. Lose, and you get the chance to find whatever small, feeble solace is available from hanging a fiver on your hated rival’s fourth-string two years down the road.
So in short, this matters. Who Bob Bradley picks, how he lines ‘em up, and how it all comes together is the first truly important moment for the US national team since Asamoah Gyan broke hearts last summer.
Goalkeeper: Tim Howard
Howard’s the No. 1 unless he suffers an injury between now and June.
Defense: Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Timothy Chandler
Bocanegra’s still the captain and arguably the best left back.
Cherundolo is wrapping up probably the best season of his storied career in Germany. Even so, Chandler could push him for the starter’s role at right back.
Onyewu will cause some debate. He’s nowhere near the player he was before his October 2009 knee injury, but is still a solid, veteran presence and - like Bocanegra - a dominant force on set-pieces. He’s also been a regular with FC Twente, so it’s not like he’s lacking game fitness.
Midfield: Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu
Donovan’s presence is a given. Same for Dempsey, who’s probably the best US player at the moment.
Bradley’s selection will cause some consternation from the usual quarters - especially given his lack of playing time at Aston Villa - but he was very good against Argentina and Paraguay and has a history of coming up big in tournament play for the US. And Edu, despite a recent rough patch, is the best and most versatile all-around central midfielder.
Forward: Jozy Altidore
For all his struggles, there’s no conceivable way he’s left off the roster.
Goalkeeper: Marcus Hahnemann
He’s not had a lot of run at Wolves, but it’s nearly a guarantee that one of Howard’s backups will be a veteran. Hahnemann makes more sense for that role than anyone else.
Now, if Brad Guzan is available - speculation says he's not since he's getting married this June, and wasn't called up for the March friendlies - he joins Howard as a lock while Hahnemann gets knocked down a level to the next group of 'keepers. But for the sake of this column, we're going to buy into the speculation and say El Guzano won't play a part.
Defense: Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson, Jonathan Bornstein
Ream is unique in the player pool for his ability to start the attack from central defense and comfort on the ball. Goodson is a vet who’s in fine form and, again, provides a real target on set-pieces.
Bornstein’s first season in Mexico has been disappointing, and he’s been at central midfield most of his time, but he’s a blooded, seasoned left back who played mistake-free ball at the World Cup. Yeah, he’s awful in friendlies. But when it mattered most, he came through.
Midfield: Jermaine Jones, Benny Feilhaber
Jones hasn’t shone in US colors yet, but he's an asset with experience in some of the top leagues in the world.
Feilhaber dominated the Danish second flight, has played well in New England and was very, very good in last year’s World Cup in a variety of roles. He also brings a different look than the other guys in the pool - something that Bradley is well aware of.
Forwards: Juan Agudelo, Charlie Davies
Agudelo doesn’t start for the Red Bulls, but still impacts games. It’ll be the same story for the US.
Davies has won a starting spot with D.C. United after his long, post-accident recovery, and has set an absolutely torrid pace with six goals already. His skill set is still unique in the US pool, and it’s hard to imagine Bradley isn’t eager to see the Altidore-Davies striker combo that worked so well in the first half of 2009.
UP FOR GRABS
If the above holds, that means there are five spots left.
One will go to a ‘keeper.
- David Yelldell has the inside track since he’ll be in his offseason and recently worked his way into the squad.
- Bill Hamid, Tally Hall or Sean Johnson - young MLS ‘keepers who could find themselves in US colors fairly often over the next decade or more - also have a shot.
Our Guess: Yelldell
At least one will go to a defender - likely a central defender.
- Bradley could potentially select vet Jay DeMerit, but the Vancouver Whitecaps captain has barely seen the pitch since last summer, and time is running out.
- Ricardo Clark has had a solid season in Frankfurt making the transition to central defense, and he provides flexibility as another body for central midfield.
- Zak Whitbread helped lead Norwich City to the Premiership, but he's very much an unknown quantity at the international level.
- Jonathan Spector has played central defense, left back and right back in the past, but this season had the best year of his club career largely as a central midfielder - a spot where the US are stocked.
Our Guess: Clark
Two will go to midfielders who can play on the flanks.
- Alejandro Bedoya is off to a fast start in Sweden, but he has never been particularly convincing in US colors. He is, however, a natural outside midfielder.
- José Torres has had a pretty bad year for Pachuca and seems like he’s on the outside looking in. He’s also never looked comfortable out wide.
- Mix Diskerud has been up-and-down thus far in Norway, and may be in over his head at the international level at this point.
- Sacha Kljestan has quietly had a very solid year for what looks like a Europe-bound team in Belgium, but he's done so mostly in a central midfield spot.
- Freddy Adu - yeah, I said it - is being fairly productive in the Turkish second flight, and it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibilities that he’d get a call.
Our Guess: Kljestan, Bedoya
That leaves one more spot for a forward.
- Brian Ching isn’t exactly tearing things up, and may be just past his sell-by date, but he’s still good enough to hold the ball up, find teammates, win headers and add value in CONCACAF.
- Edson Buddle is, like Ching, big and strong and able to play as a true target forward. But he has struggled adjusting to the 2.Bundesliga and left the March US camp under strange circumstances.
- Herculez Gomez got onto one of his patented scoring jags at the end of Pachuca’s season, and if he’s finishing consistently, he’s an asset.
- Teal Bunbury has shown well in a few US performances and plays as a true forward, but he's an iffy finisher who’s still getting up to speed in MLS.
Our Guess: Buddle
Final Squad: Howard, Hahnemann, Yelldell; Bornstein, Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Chandler, Ream, Clark, Goodson, Onyewu; Donovan, Dempsey, Bradley, Edu, Jones, Feilhaber, Kljestan, Bedoya; Altidore, Agudelo, Davies, Buddle
Matthew Doyle can be reached for comment at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.