72613_isi_midfield_usmnt0329111066 John Dorton/isiphotos.com
Godfrey's Column

Midfield Logjam: Sorting Out the U.S. Depth Chart

Too many talented midfielders for too few roster spots—it's a good problem to have. But it begs the question: Who will make the 2014 World Cup squad and who will miss out? John Godfrey tackles the task.
BY John Godfrey Posted
July 26, 2013
12:28 PM
THE ASN 100 is a living, breathing entity.

Every 60 days our panel of 10 soccer aficionados (journalists, former players, broadcasters) updates the ranking based on athletes’ current form, and there’s always a lot of movement up and down the list.

It’s really a two-step process: We rank the players, and then you play around with the rankings. The custom-built interactive module allows you to sort and filter the list in 13 different ways, and that’s what we’ve done with the screen grab below. These are our top-ranked American midfielders as of July 1, 2013.

A few items leap out immediately. For one, Danny Williams is almost certainly ranked too high—no doubt on the strength of a few strong showings earlier in the year. And, based on his Gold Cup body of work, Mix Diskerud is too low on the list.

But the most jarring aspect of seeing these players side by side is the visualization and re-realization that there is still a tremendous amount of competition at the position within the United States squad. Only four midfielders can play at one time during a World Cup match. And if he holds true to form, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will probably bring 10 midfielders to Brazil next summer. Which means there is going to be a major knife fight for roster spots in the weeks and months ahead.

Let’s break it down and look at who’s in, who’s on the bubble, and who might need to start thinking about 2018.

First off, we need to define some roles. Yes, Fabian Johnson plays left wing as well as left back, but he is far more likely to feature at left back for the United States when the World Cup rolls around. Why? It’s simple math. There is a glut of talent in the midfield and a dearth of viable choices in defense. Johnson absolutely will be with the team in Brazil, and from a roster perspective he likely will be listed as a defender.

Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan can, and have, and will probably continue to, play both midfield and forward for the U.S. national team. So for the purposes of this exercise, let’s call Dempsey a midfielder and Donovan a forward. That could change, certainly, but let’s go with it for now.

So that means you have four absolute locks in the 2014 World Cup midfield: Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, and Jermaine Jones.

That also means there are, at most, six roster spots left for a whole bunch of midfielders who are desperate to play in the big tournament—players who deserve at least some consideration. In alphabetical order, they are:

Kyle Beckerman
Alejandro Bedoya
Joe Corona
Brad Davis
Mix Diskerud
Maurice Edu
Brad Evans
Josh Gatt
Stuart Holden
Sacha Kljestan
Brek Shea
Jose Torres
Danny Williams

Injuries will likely claim a player or two from the above list of 13, and one or two may fall out of favor with their club teams and be removed from consideration. But if I had to lock it down right now based on current form and overall fit within the squad, who would go to Brazil?

Right this moment, two of these players—Kyle Beckerman and Joe Corona—stand out above the rest.

Beckerman, long a Klinsmann favorite thanks to his consistent effort and edgy demeanor, has just played his two best games in a United States uniform. And he seems like a shoo-in to start in central midfield in Sunday’s Gold Cup Final against Panama. Has the dreadlocked Real Salt Lake captain finally found that extra gear that will allow him to succeed on the international stage? If so, he should make the squad and be an important insurance policy if Bradley or Jones cannot play at any point. (Say, yellow card accumulation, perhaps?)

Corona’s recent emergence as a force on the national team is even more impressive. Calm on the ball, blessed with vision and technique, and still just 23 years old, Corona should get better and better with another year at Club Tijuana under his belt. He can play wide if need be. He can possess the ball in the center of the pitch. He can defend. He’s very, very impressive. And we’re going to say that he’s in the World Cup squad. Here’s hoping we get to see the Los Angeles native perform in a high-pressure game like Sunday’s Gold Cup Final.

OK, six players have boarded the plane, four are still on standby in my hypothetical 10-man World Cup midfield.

Barring a setback and assuming his current trajectory, Stuart Holden is in. He can play the destroyer role, he can make a killer pass to spring an attacker, and he will work like a Sherpa to ensure he is ready to go when the ref blows the whistle. Bet against this man at your own peril.

That’s seven: Bradley, Dempsey, Zusi, Jones, Beckerman, Corona, Holden. Three spots left.

What about Maurice Edu? Does the Maryland man with 45 caps get the call? Though injured now, Edu has played a major role with the United States national team in recent years, logging 558 minutes in 2010 (including three World Cup appearances), 592 minutes in 2011, and 634 minutes in 2012. But has he lost his spot in the squad since then? It’s entirely possible. Beckerman’s recent efforts and Stuart Holden’s return to the fold leave Edu on the outside looking in, at least for the moment. If I had to choose right here and right now, he does not make the 2014 World Cup roster.

This mythical midfield I'm creating could use some width, and it could use a few left feet. Jose Torres, Brek Shea, and Brad Davis leap to mind. (For this exercise, I am assuming that DaMarcus Beasley will reprise his role at left back for the big dance in Brazil.)

The greatness of Davis’ left foot is unquestioned, but he’s a bit too slow, a bit too old (32 in November), and a bit too one-dimensional to make my roster. Torres, on the other hand, is just as capable of delivering some left-sided magic—on set pieces or in the run of play—and seems a likelier candidate for the team. I say no go to Brad but Jose is in.

And then there’s Shea. Klinsmann and his gangly Ostrich share a special bond, and the coach absolutely believes that the blond Texan winger has the potential to be a game-changer. That dreadful half against Cuba will linger in my memory for a while, but so will that game-winning run against Costa Rica in East Hartford, Conn. Right or wrong, Klinsmann will take Shea because his speed, strength, and quirkiness could be just what the U.S. needs to break a tie late in a contest next summer.

OK. That’s nine midfielders. One spot left. Who gets that middle seat in row 38—the one back by the bathroom next to the sweatyfat guy who picks at his face?

Bedoya? Diskerud? Evans? Gatt? Kljestan? Williams?

You could make an argument for just about any of them, but I think Diskerud is the last guy down the jetway next June.

Why? Because he can create.

The United States has always had a strong supply of sturdy, rugged athletes who can defend and fight and dig in—and this World Cup squad will be no different. But has the U.S. ever had a sufficient supply of players who can make something out of absolutely nothing?

Diskerud brings that artist’s sensibility to the mix, and for that reason he makes my 2014 World Cup midfield. Here it is:

Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Graham Zusi, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Joe Corona, Stuart Holden, Jose Torres, Brek Shea, and Mix Diskerud.

I know you’re going to poke holes in it. I want you to tear it up. So hop to it, please. The comments section is open for business.

John Godfrey is the editor in chief and founder of American Soccer Now.

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