DALLAS – Jurgen Klinsmann wants the Gold Cup. Raising that massive, unwieldy trophy on July 28 in Chicago is the only acceptable result for a US national team that's had little trouble sweeping its opponents aside thus far.
But it's all a means to an end.
You can bet Klinsmann would trade Gold Cup glory for a World Cup quarterfinal place and the opportunity to shock the world. For both coach and players, this tournament is preparation one year out from the real deal, a time to reinforce the preferred playing style and a perhaps seize a place in the squad or at least the conversation.
And though it must be said Guatemala, Belize, Cuba and Costa Rica aren't exactly the international elite, Klinsmann's earned high marks in this tournament – as well as during the most recent World Cup qualifying swing – for the way he's managed to return the US to the top of the CONCACAF heap. But which of his players can say the same this Gold Cup? And whose tournament leaves something to be desired?
Landon Donovan: It's pretty much undisputed that Donovan has been the Gold Cup's premier player, and it seems a matter of when – immediately? – rather than if Klinsmann will bring the US’ most-decorated player back into the World Cup qualifying squad.
The question that remains unanswered is just what Donovan’s role would be on a team that’s got on just fine without him. Chemistry is a delicate thing, after all.
Is there room for him to play second striker, a role Donovan has thrived in during the Gold Cup, with Clint Dempsey now the man given license to roam for this US side? What about a place on the wing? Neither Graham Zusi nor Fabian Johnson are going to vacate their starting spots just because Mr. 50-50 is back.
No matter where he fits in – in the XI or as an impact sub – it’s clear Donovan’s got plenty left to give on the international stage. Nobody in the US pool is better on the counter, and his movement, eye for the final ball (seriously, 55 career assists) and one-v-one abilities are probably unmatched as well.
Chris Wondolowski: Life is all about timing, and Wondolowski's has been nothing short of impeccable during the Gold Cup – both in front of net and in reinserting himself in the USMNT striker conversation.
Had Herculez Gomez been fit, the man now affectionately known as "Wondow" might not have gotten the opportunity to build on his first international goal against Guatemala as a starter. But Herc's knee didn't cooperate, and there was the San Jose man to bang in five goals in the US' first two games despite relatively shaky club form by his lofty standards.
Klinsmann stuck with the hot hand against Costa Rica and El Salvador, but the goal spree didn't continue, although chances weren't quite so forthcoming against two superior opponents, which brings us back to timing.
Wondolowski again has competition in Eddie Johnson, who scored with his first touch after coming on Sunday, and a starting spot (and the opportunity to impress) is in serious jeopardy against Honduras. He's shown plenty this tournament – he picked up what would become the game-winning assist vs. El Salvador – but we've still yet to see Wondo score against elite CONCACAF competition.
That may well be a requirement to keep his name among the cadre of American strikers jockeying for a roster spot in Brazil next summer. Or even in Costa Rica come September.
Michael Orozco Fiscal: He's not physically imposing. He's not dominant in the air. And yet, without pointing out his many strengths, those may be reasons Orozco Fiscal finds himself in the World Cup mix.
One glance at the US depth chart tells you that Klinsmann has options when it comes to tall, aerially dominant center backs. Omar Gonzalez seems to be the clear first choice at this point, with Clarence Goodson and perhaps Geoff Cameron, who's been more likely to line up at right back and defensive midfield lately, the frontrunners to partner Matt Besler.
But who backs up Besler? Who fills the more cerebral role on the backline, the central defender tasked with reading the game and providing tidy distribution to link the midfield?
That could very well be Orozco Fiscal, who impressed in all three group matches alongside Goodson (twice) and Oguchi Onyewu. Of course, the Mexico-based defender made way for Besler against El Salvador, but his role has become more defined this tournament, which can only help his chances going forward.
Brek Shea: One goal isn't the cure-all for Shea, although it certainly took some of the mounting pressure off the 23-year-old.
He certainly looked more lively against El Salvador and Costa Rica, but there's no ignoring his confidence-free performance against Cuba before getting the hook at halftime. His passing chart tells the story quite well – back passes and aimless crosses were his main contributions.
The lack of decisiveness shown against the Cubans shouldn't come as a massive surprise, though, considering Shea's past six months have been defined by injury and public-relations disasters at Stoke City.
The question now, however, is whether being with this Gold Cup team or trying to nail down a place with the Potters is better for his World Cup hopes. Another year of negligible playing time at the club level certainly won't be conducive to boarding a plane to Brazil.
Oguchi Onyewu: Count Gooch, along with Shea, among the fringe players who desperately need playing time to have any chance of turning Klinsmann's head before next summer.
The Málaga loan certainly didn't work out as planned, as the big man made more Champions League starts (two) than he did in La Liga (one). Onyewu's lone start in this Gold Cup wasn't exactly flawless either, with his mark scoring Cuba's lone goal and a penalty kick decision fortunately going his way after the 31-year-old threw himself into a wild challenge.
Clearly tIme's a ticking for Onyewu to find a place to showcase himself – both at club and international level. If that doesn't materialize soon, even Onyewu admits he has no business on a US roster.
“I’m not surprised I’m not in the national team” he told The Washington Post's Steve Goff recently. “There are no grounds to be on the national team. Once I am playing, I can make that argument.”
Alejandro Bedoya: Back to timing for a second. American fans are always pining for a No. 10 to emerge from the player pool, even better if that individual is pulling the strings for a European side.
Well, Klinsmann's got one in Bedoya, who's more of a box-crashing creator in the mold of Rafael van der Vaart than strictly a master of the final ball. Unfortunately, the timing simply isn't quite right for the Helsingborg man, who is relegated to playing on the wing because of the US' central midfield depth and lack of a true No. 10 role.
Of course, Bedoya is perfectly capable of contributing on the right flank, but he followed up his first international goal against Guatemala with a disappointing performance against Costa Rica when given the chance to start. That's partly attributable to the Ticos' five-man backline, but it's not the kind of night he needed after earning his first US start since the 2011 Gold Cup.