Despite wrapping up qualification for the 2014 World Cup last month against arch-rival Mexico, there's no shortage of storylines as the United States men's national soccer team heads into their final two matches of the CONCACAF qualifying hexagonal. Here are a few things to look for as the Americans take on Jamaica Friday night in Kansas City and then head to Panama for a road match on Tuesday.
Competition for 23-man World Cup Roster
Following a busy summer with plenty of call-ups and playing time to go around, the roster puzzle for Brazil is beginning to come into focus. Assuming the injured Omar Gonzalez, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson and Clarence Goodson are all fit and automatic selections, at least two players from this 20-man squad are still likely to be left home. Of those selected, Terrance Boyd and Sacha Kljestan find themselves most on the fringe and looking to make a strong impression. I'd especially expect Kljestan to get a start in at least one of the matches. Other players like Mix Diskerud and Geoff Cameron will be looking to take advantage of the injuries to make a case for a regular starting spot.
Anybody not selected this time around -- Michael Parkhurst in defense, Jose Torres and Joe Corona in midfield, Brek Shea and Herculez Gomez in attack among others -- will have to rely on further injuries in the squad and stellar club form to get another look from Klinsmann in the coming months.
Can the U.S. Get a 1-seed for the World Cup Draw?
Short story: No, probably not. But there remains an outside chance, and so the U.S. has every reason to play these matches with a must-win attitude.
More importantly though, the U.S. team's success this summer has created an unprecedented level of confidence and momentum in and around the team. The primary objective for Klinsmann is making sure he cultivates that confidence so that in Brazil, where the U.S. will undoubtedly face technically superior opponents, his players feel like they belong. A definitive claim to the "best team in CONCACAF" title is a great place to start.
Where Will Geoff Cameron Play?
With everyone healthy, the Stoke City defender appears to be second choice at three different positions; right back, center back and central midfield. Cameron has started every game for his club this season at right back, but based on Klinsmann's pre-match comments, it would seem that the position is still Brad Evans' to lose. With Gonzalez a late scratch, the center back spot next to Matt Besler is open, although Gonzalez's replacement in the roster, Michael Orozco, has played there more recently for the national team, starting and performing well at that position during the group stages of the Gold Cup championship run this summer. If Orozco partners Besler in defense, that leaves Cameron hoping to get the nod for the second central midfield spot next to Jermaine Jones.
That's no given though, as this selection could go a number of ways depending on how Klinsmann chooses to approach the matches tactically. If Klinsmann chooses to mimic the Jones/Bradley pairing as closely as possible, then he'll look to select a more defensively-minded player, meaning it'll either be Cameron or Kyle Beckerman. Beckerman started in place of Michael Bradley and played a great match against Mexico in the last qualifier, though the spot likely would have gone to Cameron if he had not been suspended for yellow card accumulation. Given the circumstances though, a more adventurous selection may be in order. If the coach sees Jones as adequate defensive cover, he could give the start to Mix Diskerud, a player with two-way capabilities, but who offers the most potential as a creative playmaker going forward and who could interchange with Landon Donovan or another player in the withdrawn forward position.
My guess: We'll see Cameron selected alongside Jones in central midfield, at least for Friday's Jamaica match, but long-term, Cameron's best shot at a regular place in the starting lineup is unseating Evans at right back.
Can Jozy Shake the Sunderland Funk?
This summer saw striker Jozy Altidore in the form of his life, scoring 7 goals in 5 matches and putting the USMNT on his back at times. Unfortunately, much of that form seems to be lost as his new club's Premiere League campaign has started in the worst possible way, already firing their coach and Altidore yet to get on the scoresheet. It's often difficult and unfair to assess a striker on a terrible team, but Altidore has begun to show signs of his former bad habits -- disappearing for stretches, showing his frustration with his body language, and failing to do the consistent chasing that is sometimes necessary against superior opponents. Klinsmann and the rest of the American players will be hoping that Jozy shows he's able to pick up where he left off with the national team.
Jamaica and Panama
Jamaica maintains a glimmer of qualification hope, but they'll need a ton of help the rest of the way. A full-strength U.S. team needed late-match heroics to beat Jamaica on the road in June, but since then the American squad has reeled off 11 wins in 12 games. The U.S., despite being weakened through injury, is a much more confident group after this summer, especially at home. Jamaica will try to pack it in defensively and strike with speed on the counter, so Matt Besler and company will need to play focused and mistake-free, but, realistically, the U.S. should win comfortably.
Panama, on the other hand, currently sits tied with Mexico for the fourth place in the hexagonal table. Those two teams play each other Friday night in Mexico City, so the tactics of Tuesday's match will be entirely dependent on that outcome. The U.S. had one of their strongest qualifying performances of this cycle against Panama in June, but the road atmosphere and desperation of the Panama side will undoubtedly make this a much harder test.
Lineup prediction for Friday against Jamaica:
Howard; Beasley, Besler, Orozco, Evans; Donovan, Jones, Cameron, Zusi; Johnson, Altidore.
U.S. wins 3-1.