United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann charted a prudent path as he assembled his 23-man squad for the CONCACAF Cup playoff with Mexico next Saturday.
Instead of taking the Mexican course of gambling on injured players, Klinsmann chose to remove them from the equation entirely when he submitted his final roster to CONCACAF on Thursday.
There is no room for sentiment here given the stakes in play at the Rose Bowl (live, Oct. 10, 8:00p.m. ET, FS1, FOX Sports GO). John Brooks is a key figure in central defense, but his thigh injury rules him out here. Aron Jóhannsson is a regular selection off the bench up front, but his adductor injury scuppers any chance of him making an impact here.
The realities of the situation prompted Klinsmann to adopt pragmatic measures to compensate. He increased his defensive options to provide extra cover in central defense. He trusted his seasoned midfielders to carry the day in the center of the park. He underscored the reliance on Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey by reducing his options up front. Most of all, he plumped for players with the ability to cope with the occasion and the willingness to sacrifice for the greater cause.
"I think team unity, chemistry, the atmosphere between the players, the bonding, is huge in this game," Klinsmann told ussoccer.com "It's probably one of the key factors in order to win. It's that they are there for each other. They understand that this is not about me, this is about the United States, this is about representing my country and this is about winning a trophy with my teammates. I think the word chemistry is huge approaching that Mexico game."
At this stage, it is all about producing on the big day. The choices in each department reflect the demands ahead and reinforce the need to shoulder the heavy load against El Tri.
Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
There are no surprises in this selection. Guzan enters this camp as the starter after Klinsmann reinforced the point last month. Howard is a more than capable reserve option. Rimando returns as the third goalkeeper after missing out on the September friendlies with a knee injury.
Ventura Alvarado (Club América), DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jonathan Spector (Birmingham City)
Klinsmann erred on the side of caution by including nine defenders in his squad. The expanded group marks a necessary step with John Brooks ruled out with a thigh injury and Ventura Alvarado relegated to bench duty with Club América in recent weeks. It is up to Klinsmann how to mix and match those options to form a cohesive back four in the buildup to the playoff.
Most of the attention falls in central defense once again. The competition for places is wide open with Brooks -- a likely selection on the left side of that partnership -- unavailable. Matt Besler and Tim Ream are the most likely choices to occupy that particular berth. Both players are steady figures capable of keeping the play moving in possession and tending to their defensive duties. Alvarado is the normal choice on the right side of that partnership, though Geoff Cameron and Michael Orozco both present viable alternatives if Alvarado does not impress in camp.
There is little intrigue about the fullback berths if Klinsmann sticks to his proclamations last month: Fabian Johnson occupies the right back berth, while DaMarcus Beasley starts on the left. Both players operate as traditional fullbacks, while the possible deputies -- including Cameron and Evans on the right, Ream on the left and Spector on either side -- primarily focus on their defensive duties when deployed in those spots.
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
The adjustments and the extra selections in defense streamlined matters in midfield. The omissions of Joe Corona, Mix Diskerud and Alfredo Morales strip away of the depth in central midfield. It is a pragmatic decision given the presence of several established options likely to soak up most of the playing time in this one-off playoff.
At this point, the big question revolves around how to accommodate the available options. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are almost certain to feature, barring an injury or fitness concern cropping up in midweek. Alejandro Bedoya and Kyle Beckerman offer necessary experience in a game of this magnitude. Is there a way to accommodate all four players in midfield? The narrow nature of that setup might cede too much room on the flanks, but Klinsmann is often reluctant to drop a forward to insert a fifth midfielder.
There is also the possibility of opting for traditional wingers to inject more pace into the team. Gyasi Zardes supplies cover up front, but he also stands out as a regular option on the left with his performances for the national team this year. DeAndre Yedlin is the most natural wide option on the right even after making his first league start for Sunderland at right back on Saturday, but his mistake against Brazil still lingers in the memory. Graham Zusi is another choice if Klinsmann is prepared to sacrifice raw speed for industry and precision.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Klinsmann lost his primary alternative up front when Aron Jóhannsson sustained an adductor injury. Jóhannsson fell down the pecking order after his wasteful performance against Jamaica in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal, but his encouraging start at Werder Bremen recommended him as a potential option off the bench.
Jóhannsson's injury does not really disrupt the starting XI, though. Altidore and Dempsey are the favorites to start up top, though Altidore's place could come under threat if Klinsmann decides he needs an extra man in midfield. Wondolowski looms as an experienced reserve option in case the Americans are chasing the game in the late stages, while Zardes remains more likely to feature in midfield given his deployment so far this year.