Guatemala has never been a world beater, but Jurgen Klinsmann doesn't care. As much as U.S. national team fans may want to overlook the Central Americans, and would prefer to see Klinsmann experiment with some new faces in this month's World Cup qualifiers, Klinsmann isn't ready to take that chance. More to the point, he isn't going to waste the opportunity to call in as strong a U.S. team as possible, even if it lacks the sizzle that new names can sometimes provide.
Rather than bring in fresh faces, Klinsmann turned to some familiar names we hadn't heard in a while. Chief among them is Clint Dempsey, who hadn't been with the team since struggling through the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October. As much as Klinsmann chalked up Dempsey's recent absences from camp to simply wanting to look at some new faces, there was still a lingering sense of dread that the coach might be easing Dempsey out of the national team door the same way he abruptly ended Landon Donovan's national team career almost two years ago.
We have not seen the last of Dempsey in a U.S. uniform though, and his return for the March qualifiers suggests Klinsmann still has plans for him this summer, which has been Dempsey's hope since the Copa America was finalized.
Omar Gonzalez is also back after an extended absence since September, and his excellent run of form for Liga MX side Pachuca made him a difficult player to leave off the squad. Gonzalez will have a fight for a starting role though, with Geoff Cameron looking like a good bet to start on the right side of central defense.
The tough thing about the group Klinsmann called in is the uncertainty about two key players. Fabian Johnson suffered a hamstring injury on Saturday, and while he's on the U.S. camp roster, it doesn't mean he will be healthy in time to play on Friday in Guatemala. Jozy Altidore made his return from injury on Sunday for Toronto FC, but he is likely facing a battle to regain the necessary fitness to be considered a possible starting option.
With those potential key absences in mind, here is a look at the starting lineup we could see take the field in Guatemala on Friday, along with a look at five storylines from the U.S. roster announcement:
CONSIDERING DEMPSEY'S ROLE
If the CONCACAF Cup showed us anything, it's that an Altidore-Dempsey forward tandem probably doesn't have much of a future. Sure, the pairing could manage to score a few goals, and beat the likes of Guatemala, but it's tough to see the duo producing enough dynamism up top to truly trouble tougher teams, like the ones the U.S. will see this summer.
So if we consider that, and if Klinsmann is at all looking ahead to this summer, then we need to see Dempsey with a different strike partner, or in a different position. The argument could be moot if Altidore can't regain his fitness in time to be a starting option. If he can't, then a Dempsey-Bobby Wood tandem starts to look very attractive. Dempsey's smart passing and movement, coupled with Wood's speed and well-timed runs, could cause problems in the Copa America, and would certainly give Guatemala's defense fits.
And if Altidore is fit enough to start? Then an Altidore-Wood strike force makes sense, with Dempsey potentially occupying a role at the top of a diamond 4-4-2, or perhaps a role on the left wing, where he has spent time for the Seattle Sounders.
Could Klinsmann leave Dempsey on the bench? It's tough to see it, but if Klinsmann does plan on phasing him out, then that would certainly be one way to do it. Don't bet it on it just yet, though.
STICKING WITH THE OLD GUARD IN DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD
If you were hoping to see some younger defensive midfield options get a nod in this camp given Jermaine Jones' suspension, you were sorely disappointed. Kyle Beckerman was called in as expected, but Klinsmann didn't call in any other defensive midfield types, choosing to pass on Danny Williams despite Williams' excellent form for Reading FC. Yes, you could argue Mix Diskerud has been known to play a deeper central role under Klinsmann, and he is playing better for New York City FC, but it's tough for anyone to see Diskerud as a long-term solution in a defensive midfield role.
Calling on Beckerman as the lone defensive midfielder also appears to signal the likelihood that Klinsmann plans on riding Jones and Beckerman all the way through Copa America, which seems risky given their age, but understandable if he doesn't really see any of the younger options (like Will Trapp or Perry Kitchen) being ready for such an important role this summer.
Klinsmann might also be taking notice of Michael Bradley's run in defensive midfield for Toronto FC, and considering a move U.S. fans have spent years clamoring for. Playing Bradley in a deeper role would make room for Dempsey in midfield, and could allow Klinsmann to move a step closer to fielding his strongest possible lineup this summer.
BACK IN THE DEFENSIVE MIX
Omar Gonzalez's absence from the national team wasn't nearly as eyebrow-raising as Dempsey's was, mainly because his form last fall wasn't good and he deserved to be dropped. Gonzalez responded by moving to Liga MX and grabbing a starting role on a strong Pachuca side. Whether Gonzalez needed a change of scenery after seven seasons with the LA Galaxy, or he was simply in a rut last year, there is no denying that he is currently in good form.
John Brooks was in much the same boat last year, having failed to impress at last summer's Gold Cup. He has since retaken a starting role at Hertha Berlin, and been an integral part of their impressive run to third place in the German Bundesliga.
Steve Birnbaum's call-up may have come as a bit of a surprise, but he clearly impressed in the January camp and played himself into a return engagement. Though he isn't likely to play much, if at all, the young D.C. defender is potentially an option this summer if there are injuries, and if he can keep playing well for D.C. United.
THE HEAD SCRATCHERS
Edgar Castillo's return had to surprise some, even though Klinsmann has mentioned him in the past as a player who has been on his radar for some time. Just last January, Klinsmann told Goal that Castillo was in the mix for a national team return. His deficiencies as a defender are well known, but he has been playing regularly for Liga MX leaders Monterrey, and he just might be passable enough defensively to due as a starting option against Guatemala.
Michael Orozco is an even bigger head-scratching selection than Castillo. At least Castillo starts for Monterrey. Orozco can't even make the bench for Tijuana. So why call him in? Orozco is one of the few players Klinsmann feels comfortable with at right back, and he should be able to handle taking on Guatemala if he's needed, though DeAndre Yedlin really should be the starting right back for the upcoming qualifiers.
There are always players who wind up missing out, but two stand out above the rest this time around. Jorge Villafana remains a no-show despite him playing very well for Santos Laguna this season. Ultimately, it appears Klinsmann preferred Castillo, who he knows well.
The other snub that stood out was Williams, who appears to still be paying the price for his terrible showing against Costa Rica in October. He hasn't been called in since, and after this latest snub, it is starting to look like he won't be an option for Copa America despite his good club form.