US national team - defending a corner kick vs. Costa Rica - Nov. 15, 2016
John Dorton/ISI Sports Images

Stejskal: How MLS will impact US national team's World Cup chase

Eight matches. Seven months. One spot in Russia.

We’ll likely know if the US men’s national team will be headed to the 2018 World Cup by Oct. 10, when they’ll close the CONCACAF Hexagonal with a match at Trinidad and Tobago. In the event the US finishes fourth in Hex, we won’t know their fate for another month, with the fourth-place CONCACAF finisher advancing to a home-and-home playoff against the fifth-place finisher from Asia on Nov. 14.

Either way, there’s a good deal of uncertainty whether or not the US will actually get to Russia. The narrow 2-1 home loss to Mexico and 4-0 thrashing at Costa Rica that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job in November put the team in a significant hole, with the US in dead last in the Hex ahead of their upcoming qualifiers against Honduras (March 24 at San Jose's Avaya Stadium) and at Panama in March.

The Americans are in unfamiliar territory, but that’s only fitting for a team going through its biggest transition in years. New head coach Bruce Arena has a January camp and a couple of friendlies under his belt, but he hasn’t yet had a chance to call in his full group.

Plenty of MLS players are in the mix of course, with several locked in tight positional battles and others fighting for roster spots. Here are a five MLS-centric USMNT questions I’ll be keeping an eye on as the national team moves through qualifying in 2017.

Who wins the Benny Feilhaber vs. Sacha Kljestan battle?

The No. 1 question from January camp remains one of Arena’s biggest quandaries heading into the March qualifiers: Who will start at attacking midfield?

For now, Sporting Kansas City’s Feilhaber and the New York Red Bulls’ Kljestan appear to be the favorites. Both participated in January camp, with Feilhaber looking a little sharper in his start in the USA’s 1-0 win over Jamaica than Kljestan did when he got a run out in the team’s scoreless draw against Serbia.

That said, Kljestan had the better 2016 MLS season, and he was electric when he played in a couple of qualifiers under Klinsmann late last summer. He’s shown chemistry with the US’s A-midfield, something Feilhaber hasn’t had a chance at yet.

In my mind, that gives Kljestan a slight edge to start over Feilhaber heading into the qualifiers against Honduras and Panama in a few weeks. Both players will likely be consistent call-ups throughout the year, however – if one lights it up in MLS, he’ll get a chance with the national team.

Who starts in goal?

Eventually, this battle will likely come down to the Colorado RapidsTim Howard and incoming Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan. For March, however, who gets the nod in net is a bit of an open question.

Howard, 37, is still working his way back from an adductor injury suffered in the loss to Mexico, and doesn’t look like he’ll be ready by the time qualifying starts up again. Guzan would normally be the surefire starter behind Howard. But the 32-year-old, who will move to Atlanta this summer, isn’t playing at English Premier League club Middlesbrough.

Arena has said that he won’t rule out Guzan just because he’s not getting consistent playing time. But his lack of starts – he’s played just three games in all competitions in 2017 – certainly opens the door for several others to step in.

Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando is likely No. 1 on the list behind Guzan, as the 37-year-old has the experience and trust from Arena necessary to start in a pair of hugely important qualifiers. Others in the running include San Jose’s David Bingham and New York’s Luis Robles, both of whom participated at January camp and each played a half in the win against Jamaica.

Another MLS ‘keeper to keep an eye on? D.C. United’s Bill Hamid. The 2014 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year missed January camp due to an injury, but he looks fully healthy now and has the talent to play a major role for the US in the longer term.

Will Clint Dempsey return? And what will it look like?

After missing the second half of 2016 due to a heart condition, Clint Dempsey is back fully participating with the Seattle Sounders and should be a go for their opener at Houston this weekend. Arena said in January that he won’t be calling the soon-to-be 34-year-old for the March qualifiers. But if he plays well for Seattle, it’s hard not see him earning a call-up in the summer.

If Dempsey does work his way back into the mix, there are questions about the role he’d play under Arena. Toronto’s Jozy Altidore and Hamburg striker Bobby Wood showed pretty excellent chemistry together up top in 2016, and Seattle attacker Jordan Morris has emerged as a pretty solid backup.

It’d be a bit strange to see Dempsey relegated to a reserve role with the USMNT, but I’m not sure that he’d unseat Wood or Altidore – at least in the short term. Given how those two played together last year, Altidore’s incredible form down the stretch in 2016 and Wood’s decent strike rate with Hamburg, I’d guess Arena would be loath to break them up.

A lot can change in three months. But if Dempsey is back in the USMNT picture for the June qualifiers against Trinidad and Tobago and at Mexico, it might be as a substitute.

Will Kekuta Manneh play a role?

He’s not yet fully eligible (and might not be until he turns 23 in late December), but Vancouver Whitecaps attacker and new US citizen Kekuta Manneh has a huge opportunity to work himself into the national team picture this year.

The Whitecaps attacker had a disappointing 2016, recording five goals and two assists in 17 appearances before an injury to his right foot brought his season to an abrupt halt in July. He’s now fully healthy – and fully on Arena’s radar. The 22-year-old newly-minted US citizen was called into the January camp and is off to a solid start with the ‘Caps, scoring in their 1-1 draw at New York in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal series last week.

The Gambia-born Manneh is still waiting to be cleared by FIFA before he can play a match for the USMNT. But it’s really, really tempting to picture him coming on late and flat burning an opposing defender with his terrific speed. If he puts together a good year for the ‘Caps, he might just tempt Arena, too.

*Watch out for SKC’s Dom Dwyer, who is set to receive his US citizenship in the next couple of months, as a potential option this summer.

Who will make the leap?

Aside from Manneh, several really intriguing young players received their first call-ups during the January camp.

The leading names on my list are LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget and FC Dallas defender Walker Zimmerman. Lletget in particular looks poised for big things this year. The 24-year-old seems set for a role on the wing with LA, but, as former Galaxy boss Arena knows, he’s more than capable of playing centrally, too. He played 135 minutes in the two friendlies that closed January camp. With Jermaine Jones suspended against Honduras, he just might be in line for a start against Honduras.

Zimmerman, 23, has to work through a bit of a longer line to see significant playing time at center back. But it’s hard not to love what he and fellow USMNT fringe player Matt Hedges did with FC Dallas last year. The imposing defender finished third in the Defender of the Year voting, and, if he continues developing, has the tools to be a success on the international level.

Lletget and Zimmerman could get some looks in qualifying, but there are some other youngsters around MLS that will likely merit consideration for the Gold Cup. Seattle’s Cristian Roldan seems like a relatively safe bet to work himself into the mix, while I could see a few other players – say, New York’s Sean Davis and New England’s Kelyn Rowe – getting some love with big years in MLS. 

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