With the Hexagonal halfway gone and the Gold Cup coming soon, the emergence of "A" and "B" level U.S. national team squad has become apparent. The A team, led by Hannibal Smith most of the national team mainstays, is the mostly-safe group that will make up the bulk of the U.S. delegation to Brazil next summer. The B team is the outsiders, the fringe guys too young, too old, or who have never quite broken into the team.
The upcoming Gold Cup, however, offers some of the B players a chance to force their way into the A team. The gold standard precedent remains Stuart Holden. The then-Houston Dynamo midfielder rode his breakout performance in 2009 to a spot in the 2010 World Cup and the beginnings of a promising European career.
We'll be taking a look at the national team picture after the tournament, but first, here's how the plane to Brazil is filling up so far.
First Class To Rio
The locks will pretty much remain the locks, such is the nature of lock... ness. Clint Dempsey is currently the lockiest lock that was ever en-locked, now that he's wearing the armband, identifying him as the team's leader in addition to being its best player. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are fully entrenched at central midfield and will stay there through next summer. Although he's not quite sure of his position at the moment, Geoff Cameron's level of play and all-around utility make him an undroppable asset. Tim Howard is still the No.1, and will remain so. Fabian Johnson can look a bit lost in midfield, but he's the best left back in the pool and has provided some vital service in the Hex.
Joining the locks this time around is Jozy Altidore, who has goalsploaded all over this round of qualifying, finally reproducing his blistering club form for AZ in the red, white and blue, and emphatically booking his ticket in the process.
Landon Donovan may still be performing his penance with the Gold Cup team after his extended break from soccer, but the veteran's inclusion on the plane to Brazil is a foregone conclusion; there isn't enough talent in the pool to keep a fit and healthy player of Donovan's proven quality and experience out of the squad.
Sitting In Coach
In the very first downgrade from a lock, Timothy Chandler's place has become slightly less solid in recent months. While he's still the best right back in the pool, his injuries and frequent absences have allowed other options to emerge and place a smidgen of doubt around his place. Steve Cherundolo has been there and done it all for the USA, and barring a Bocanegra-like fall from grace as he ages, should still be the favored deputy.
On the opposite side of defense, DaMarcus Beasley has had a somewhat-unlikely career revival as a left back, combining his experience and natural two-way skill with his still-formidable pace.
In the back, Nick Rimando is a continual standout starter in MLS, and has the benefit of more experience and more success than his rivals.
Moving into the midfield, Danny Williams, who just earned himself a move to Reading in England, is probably a pretty safe bet at the moment to make the squad.
Up top, Herculez Gomez faces a bit of a fight for his place in the side, with the importance of Dempsey, the recent form and higher ceiling of Altidore, and the width of various Johnsons often leaving him the odd man out
In the past few matches, a specific central defensive pairing has emerged. Many expected Omar Gonzalez to be a big player for the Yanks in this cycle, and although he still has to cut out the mistakes, he should be first choice in 2014. Even more impressive has been the meteoric rise of Matt Besler, who went from an on the bubble MLS-er to looking like the more assured partner of the two.
Besler's club teammate, Graham Zusi, is another domestically-based player who's established himself as a potentially key national team member out wide with Stoke City youngster Brek Shea a natural successor and potential deputy. On the wing is also a role where Eddie Johnson has thrived since being converted from his natural striking position.
In The Departure Lounge
Another Sounders player to work his way into the squad is Brad Evans, who deputized at right back in recent qualifiers and acquitted himself ably, if not spectacularly.
A younger player who could muscle his way into the squad is Philadelphia Union striker Jack McInerney. Forwards, more than any other position, are judged by your form, and the 20-year-old is tied for the MLS lead in goals this season. A good display in the Gold Cup and continued MLS success could push him into the picture, especially if Jurgen Klinsmann sees him as the future and wants to expose him to the top level.
Of course, most any payer in the Gold Cup squad or on the outskirts of the national team has to believe he's only a run of hot form away from realizing his World Cup dreams. This is where you'll find Stuart Holden, continuing his career rehab since returning from injury, defenders hoping to be the depth on the bench (Michael Parkhurst, Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson, Michael Orozco-Fiscal, Edgar Castillo), midfielders unable to break into the packed center of the park (Sacha Kljestan, Jose Torres, Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu, Alejandro Bedoya), and promising younger players of a more offensive bend (Terrence Boyd, Mikkel Diskerud, Joshua Gatt, Joe Corona).
Not in the Gold Cup and potentially out of chances to impress is Brad Davis. The Houston Dynamo wideman is quality at the MLS level, but struggles with the speed of play at the international level.
Young goalkeepers Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid are unlikely to make the squad as it stands, but would be the favorites to contend for the third spot if any of the incumbents is unable to make the tournament,
Waiting By The Phone
Oh, woe to be Carlos Bocanegra right now. Six months ago, he was the captain of the national team, a steady veteran presence in one of the thinnest area of the teams. Now, he's on the outs with the national team, not even having made the Gold Cup squad. Back in MLS with Chivas USA, it's starting to look like it will take some imperious form and some other players falling out of favor before Boca will get called back in.
Joining the former captain on the outside looking in are Chris Wondolowski, in the Gold Cup squad but with a glaring goose egg of goals in his 11 caps, and various other MLS players making up the numbers in the continental championship (sorry Corey Ashe, Will Bruin, Mike Magee and Tony Beltran).
CURRENT PROJECTED SQUAD:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando
DEFENDERS (8): Timothy Chandler, Geoff Cameron, Fabian Johnson, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Steve Cherundolo, Brad Evans, DaMarcus Beasley
MIDFIELDERS (7): Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Danny Williams, Maurice Edu, Graham Zusi, Sacha Kljestan, Brek Shea
FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Herculez Gomez, Eddie Johnson