For all its pomp and circumstance, world-beating friendly performances, and listless tilts against nations that would fit inside the greater Des Moines metropolitan area, the Jürgen Klinsmann era has been marked by one thing in particular: uncertainty. A more critical observer might be willing to label it instability, but I’m already pot committed to the California German’s Svengali act and not ready to back away. Not just yet.
For 27 USMNT games, Klinsmann trotted out 27 different 11-man lineups. Only the back-to-back Germany-Jamaica starters — a bizarre cacophony of individuals that would have most fans waking up in a cold sweat if they took the field together in Brazil next summer, sorry Brad Evans — could end that streak. With that established tradition of uncertainty, it should be no surprise that Klinsmann will have to mix it up once again against Panama, even if that chaos was not of his own making.
With Jermaine Jones officially sidelined with a concussion sustained against Jamaica and Graham Zusi serving a yellow-card suspension as one of the unlikeliest players to receive a yellow-card suspension, there are changes to make. While the 11 that pulled out a victory in Kingston appeared to finally bring some consistency to the table, Klinsmann has made it clear that nobody is irreplaceable. That said, it doesn’t make his decision any easier.
So who is likely to suit up for the USMNT in Seattle?
Replacing Jermaine Jones
For all the constantly shifting pieces around the lineup, it has been the consistent presence and power of Jones and Michael Bradley in the midfield that keeps the American side running. Even with the brilliant scoring record of Clint Dempsey, there has seldom been a USMNT game of late where Jones didn’t at least have an outside case for Man of the Match. Between his ability to both destroy opposing attacks and initiate ones for his teammates, Jones could prove to be the one of the two or three hardest players in the team — along with Bradley and Dempsey — to replace, even just for one game.
Based on Klinsmann’s reaction to Jones’ injury in-game, it appears as though Geoff Cameron will deputize in the midfield. The Stoke City man has played all across the defense for club and country in the past year, but hasn’t really seen significant time in front of the back four since his days with the Houston Dynamo. But he is versatile. Even as it seems increasingly likely that midfielder-turned-defender Brad Evans will line up at right back while right-back-turned-midfielder Cameron will take over for Jones.
Although he lacks the grit and force of Jones, Cameron’s aerial ability could come in handy if Panama are content to counterattack and play Route One all day — which they might with Blas Pérez out — and his athleticism cannot be denied. He may not be the most obvious option, but is probably be the best. Match-tested and able to replace at least some of Jones’ tenacity, the spot should be Cameron’s in Seattle.
If Klinsmann passes him over, the duty could fall to Sacha Kljestan (who was disappointing in a similar role against Belgium) or Stuart Holden (who is surely not yet fit enough to go close 90 minutes). That said, look for Cameron, who was a sure starter in recent matches, to get the call.
Replacing Graham Zusi
While Zusi is not someone who ever seemed irreplaceable — especially to a constant critic like myself — his crosses have provided goals for the formerly service-starved USMNT frontman Jozy Altidore in each of the last two games. Even if you only thought the winger was only holding the spot warm for Landon Donovan, it’s been am impressive run. Against Panama, who if the don’t park the bus will at least leave it idling, Klinsmann needs to find someone else who can provide that ball to unlock the defense.
Of course, it has been well documented that the USMNT is not exactly flush with natural wingers — not that Zusi fits the bill either. Thus, finding his replacement becomes an increasingly bizarre act of musical chairs. Fabian Johnson, himself pseudo-deputizing for an injured Herculez Gomez on the left-wing, may be asked to switch flanks. Eddie Johnson could line up wide, probably on the left, but who really knows. Eddie Johnson? Brad Davis? Edgar Castillo? DaMarcus Beasley? Kljestan? Each of them could figure into the starting lineup in some wing iteration or another.
But that all ignores the most obvious swap: Joe Corona. The 22-year-old Tijuana winger has only three caps to his name — not exactly shocking the world in any of them — but his ability to outlast this roster’s attrition might mean Klinsmann is ready to give him his first real shot on the right side.
The flanks are likely to be key in this game, so the coach better be sure he’s putting his best attacking foot forward with his wing selections. Following Fabian Johnson’s uninspiring performance in Jamaica, that could be a tall order. Assuming Klinsmann doesn’t want to rock the boat too much, keeping Johnson in the lineup — although with Klinsmann, assume at your own risk — might make Corona the best option. If Johnson moves to the right instead? Well, then the left could be one of about six options.
It may seem like a bit of a long shot, but I think it’s Joe Corona’s day. If it flops, he could be gone at half and buried until the Gold Cup.
Projected Lineup against Panama
—————————— Tim Howard ——————————
Brad Evans — Omar Gonzalez — Matt Besler — DaMarcus Beasley
————— Geoff Cameron ——– Michael Bradley —————
Joe Corona ————- Clint Dempsey ————- Fabian Johnson
—————————— Jozy Altidore ——————————