By now, it's well known that the World Cup is 100 days away. It is a fact surely not lost on national team managers, who are running out of time to not only decide which players will take up the final spots on their World Cup rosters, but also which players will be taking the field as starters, and in what formation they will be deployed.
That probably made for some nerve-wracking days for Jurgen Klinsmann, who nearly lost his last chance to see his European-based players amid rumors of a cancellation of Wednesday’s friendly with Ukraine. Nobody would have been surprised to see the match canceled, what with Ukraine on the brink of war with Russia.
The match is on schedule though, and Klinsmann will have his chance to address several positions that remain question marks, and make final evaluations on players who are still trying to sort out their national team roles.
The two players who Klinsmann needs more information on are two of the best and most versatile players in the U.S. pool. Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron are safe bets to be starting when the U.S. kicks off World Cup play against Ghana. The big question now is just where will they be starting?
This question should be an easy one given the options Klinsmann has to choose from at the fullback positions, but there is evidence to suggest he is still considering some possibilities.
When the roster for Wednesday’s friendly was announced, Johnson was listed as a midfielder instead of defender, and Edgar Castillo was called in. The Castillo call-up was a perplexing one considering Klinsmann left all other North American-based players home except for Michael Bradley, who has no club match scheduled for next weekend.
Calling in Castillo makes more sense if the plan is to start him against Ukraine. Doing so would serve to not only let Castillo show whether he’s really a viable option against higher-level competition, and a chance to play Johnson as a winger, where he has proven to be a very dangerous option.
The thought of Castillo as a starting left back doesn’t instill much confidence given his defensive struggles for the national team, but DaMarcus Beasley remains the option por the position who's not named Fabian Johnson, and Beasley and Johnson have worked well together when partnered on the left flank.
So why not bring Beasley instead of Castillo? There’s an argument for letting Beasley stay in Mexico with Puebla rather than having him play an extra game, and travel round trip to Europe, in a World Cup year. Beasley doesn’t have much left to prove. He’s starting regularly for Puebla, and has been relatively healthy.
That Klinsmann is still experimenting with Johnson as a winger might seem odd given the lack of quality left back options in the pool, but Johnson also happens to be one of the U.S. pool’s best wing options. His ability to cover ground and provide effective service from the flank is unmatched. He is more dynamic than Graham Zusi, and a more effective crosser of the ball that either Alejandro Bedoya or Landon Donovan.
Klinsmann surely remembers Johnson’s effectiveness on the wing last summer, and how well he worked with Jozy Altidore. Johnson’s speed-skill combination can help not only bring the best out of Altidore, but also keep opponents honest at the World Cup. Deploying Johnson in the attack rather than in defense is a proactive step, and would be evidence that Klinsmann plans on trying to attack teams, and not just counterattack teams, at the World Cup.
Which brings us to Geoff Cameron, whom Klinsmann has been slow to integrate to the starting right back role despite the fact Cameron has started there for Stoke City for a season and a half. The big concern with Cameron has long been his ability to contribute to the attack. In his early going at right back, Cameron didn’t look like much of an attacking threat, but he has shown improvement in this department for Stoke City.
The Ukraine match will give Klinsmann one more chance to see Cameron working at right back in the U.S. system. it will also allow Klinsmann to see two players who are vying to be options at other positions Cameron can play. Oguchi Onyewu and Danny Williams have boosted their stock with their play in the English League Championship, and if they prove to be viable options at central defender and defensive midfielder respectively, then Klinsmann can afford to keep Cameron at right back, where the options are slim beyond Brad Evans, who has had his share of struggles in recent national team showings.
As important as it will be for players like Onyewu, Williams and Sacha Kljestan to impress Klinsmann against Ukraine, and boost their chances of making the World Cup team, how they do won’t be as important as how Johnson and Cameron do. Klinsmann needs Johnson and Cameron to be strong flank options this summer in Brazil if the U.S. national team is going to have any chance of surviving the World Cup’s Group of Death, and the Ukraine friendly will go a long way toward telling whether they are the right options in the right roles.