With another round of international fixtures over, we are edging ever closer to knowing the identities of the 32 teams who will compete at next summer’s World Cup Finals. Amongst the teams left in contention are a scattering of players flying the flag for Major League Soccer, and here we assess how this round of matches has affected each one’s chances of obtaining a golden ticket to Brazil 2014.
Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (Sporting KC), Clint Dempsey and Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders), Omar Gonzalez and Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy)
The USMNT sealed their place at next summer’s World Cup Finals with a 2-0 victory over Mexico on Tuesday evening, bouncing back from their defeat at the hands of Costa Rica on Friday. A team laden with MLS stars, which ones will make Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man squad for Brazil? The answer is all of them, probably. The MLS contingent have formed a core for the USMNT, a fact reinforced by Klinsmann himself, who on Wednesday said that “MLS is the foundation for the national team”.
Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando is the USA’s go-to third choice keeper now – and with good reason. He was solid during his stint as Number 1 at the Gold Cup, and although he is not of the same class as Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, he is at this point markedly superior to the alternatives – namely Tally Hall, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson. Three goalkeepers will board the plane to Brazil – expect Rimando to be among them.
Rimando’s club-mate Kyle Beckerman played the full 90 minutes against Mexico on Tuesday, and despite starting slowly he grew into the game and was one of the USA’s top performers on the night. He brought composure to a midfield that had looked undisciplined and disorganised in the absence of Michael Bradley against Costa Rica, and would provide valuable cover for Bradley at Brazil 2014, should the AS Roma man be unable to play.
Omar Gonzalez, LA Galaxy’s newest Designated Player, has played every minute of every game in this final CONCACAF qualifying round – and he seems to get better each time. His performance against Mexico this week was probably his best ever in a USA shirt. There’s a reason why the Galaxy splashed out on a bumper DP contract for him, and he now appears to be the dominant defender Jurgen Klinsmann has longed for.
Omar’s LA colleague, Landon Donovan, has been something of a revelation this year. After returning from hiatus, he made the Gold Cup squad and proved he’s still got it, taking both the MVP and top goalscorer accolades. He played the full 90 minutes in both the Costa Rica and the Mexico game, and has inexorably thrust himself back into Klinsmann’s plans. Moreover, his new multi-year extension with LA sends a message: Landon’s back for the long-haul. If his form for the Galaxy remains even close to what it is at the moment (which is stunning, by the way), he’ll be on that plane.
Matt Besler, who missed the Mexico fixture through suspension, has forged a strong partnership with Gonzalez at the centre of the USA’s defence, a partnership which – given their ages – should excite fans of the Yanks, as it could be a mainstay of the USMNT for years to come. Providing his good domestic form for Sporting Kansas City continues, there is no reason why he won’t start in Brazil. At the very least, he’ll make the 23.
Graham Zusi, like all USMNT players, had a difficult time in San José on Friday, and was subbed off after 58 minutes; against Mexico, he got seven minutes off the bench. Although this wasn’t his best gameweek, he has otherwise been pretty consistent throughout qualifying, appearing 10 times for Klinsmann’s men. However, the resurgence of Landon Donovan – the man Zusi was tipped to replace – has made life difficult for the Sporting KC midfielder, and he will have to maintain a high level domestically to seal his spot.
Eddie Johnson has enjoyed a successful qualifying campaign, bagging four goals in 10 appearances, and had a very good game against Mexico on Tuesday. In fact, his performances – whether from a starting spot or as an impact substitute – have been crucial to the USA’s achievements of late. The only issue for him vis a vis Brazil 2014 is fending off the wealth of attacking talent nipping at his heels. Aron Jóhannsson has emerged; Jack McInerney is having a prolific season and Juan Agudelo could explode when he moves to Stoke City in January. With Dempsey, Donovan and Altidore all but guaranteed places in the squad, EJ will have to continue to work hard for his spot.
Speaking of which: Clint Dempsey. Not much to add here – USMNT captain and the first name on Jurgen’s team sheet. He could probably score no goals between now and next summer and still start the first World Cup game.
Jaime Penedo (LA Galaxy), Blas Perez (FC Dallas), Gabriel Torres (Colorado Rapids)
Managing two draws in the last week, Panama’s qualification hopes are still alive, although it may very well have to be done through an intercontinental play-off match with New Zealand. They are currently fourth in the group, equal on points with Mexico who they play in October – a match which is sure to be huge.
Having played 15 of their 16 games in the campaign, Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo would be a certain starter for Panama if they were to reach Brazil. He was in fine form for his country at the Gold Cup this summer, and since moving to LA has continued to maintain the standard, pulling off one of the saves of the season against Vancouver and restoring some much needed stability to their defence.
Similarly, Blas Perez of FC Dallas has been on fire for Panama, playing all 16 matches thus far and bagging 10 goals in the process. Gabriel Torres, despite playing only five games for Panama in the qualifying campaign, would certainly be in contention for a spot on the Finals roster, being a relatively young talent and showing real signs of promise – such as his two goals in the 2-2 draw with Honduras on Tuesday night.
Victor Bernardez and Marvin Chavez (SJ Earthquakes), Boniek Garcia (Houston Dynamo), Jerry Bengtson (NE Revolution)
Honduras took four points from their two games, beating Mexico on Friday and holding Panama to a 2-2 draw on Tuesday. They sit in third place in the group, three points ahead of Mexico in fourth, and will fancy their chances of progressing to Brazil 2014 with matches against already-qualified Costa Rica and bottom team Jamaica still to play.
Should Honduras qualify, Victor Bernardez of San Jose Earthquakes would be a shoo-in for the Finals, having started 13 of 14 qualifying matches so far and even bagged himself a goal. A veteran defender with 69 caps under his belt, he would provide boss Luis Suárez (not that one) the necessary maturity and experience at the back.
However, Bernardez’s San Jose teammate, Marvin Chavez, may have to do a bit of convincing between now and next summer if he is to make the squad. Having got on the pitch just six games in the qualifying campaign so far (mostly from the bench) and made only 13 appearances for the Earthquakes this season, reliability and injury-proneness would appear to be an issue.
Houston Dynamo’s Boniek Garcia has been the only ever-present for Honduras throughout the qualifying process, and with 86 caps to his name at the age of just 29, you can bet on him being the first name on the team-sheet in Brazil, should they make it.
The New England Revolution’s Jerry Bengtson has struggled in the league this season with just one goal in 13 appearances; however, it’s been a different story on the international stage, scoring eight goals in 10 games. He would perhaps have to improve his MLS form to make certain of his place in any Honduras World Cup squad, but his performances for his country will stand him in good stead.
Alvaro Saborio (Real Salt Lake)
Real Salt Lake’s Alvaro Saborio took to the field for the final ten minutes of Costa Rica’s emphatic 3-1 win over the United States on Friday evening. Unfortunately he sustained a left calf injury in the days after, and was unable to play a part in the match with Jamaica on Tuesday night. Nevertheless, Los Ticos managed a draw in Kingston, and in doing so secured their place at next summer’s World Cup Finals with two games to spare.
Real Salt Lake’s top goalscorer ever, third on the all-time Costa Rica list, and still in fine domestic form with 10 goals in 13 appearances this season, Saborio can provide the perfect counterbalance to the youthfulness of Arsenal striker Joel Campbell. Injury permitting, his place on the flight to Brazil should be guaranteed.
Joel Lindpere (Chicago Fire)
31-year-old Lindpere played 84 minutes and grabbed an assist in Estonia’s surprise 2-2 draw with group leaders, the Netherlands, on Friday evening. On Tuesday, however, Estonia did not fare nearly as well, losing 5-1 to Hungary. Lindpere did not feature. The defeat means that Estonian hopes of qualification are now over.
Robbie Keane (LA Galaxy)
The Republic of Ireland’s hopes of a place at Brazil 2014 are for all intents and purposes now over – although not mathematically impossible for them to qualify, the chances are microscopically slim. Indeed, Wednesday morning’s announcement that Giovanni Trapattoni had left his role as manager has seemingly drawn a line under the whole qualifying campaign. This is not for Robbie Keane’s lack of trying, however – he contributed five goals in six games for the Irish, including one last Friday in the 2-1 defeat to Sweden.
Donovan Ricketts, Alvas Powell and Ryan Johnson (Portland Timbers), Jermaine Taylor (Houston Dynamo), O’Brian Woodbine (NE Revolution), Darren Mattocks (Vancouver Whitecaps)
Donovan Ricketts, Alvas Powell, O’Brian Woodbine and Jermaine Taylor all got game time during this round of international fixtures, while Darren Mattocks and Ryan Johnson were unused substitutes in both matches. While they managed two draws against Panama and Costa Rica, they remain winless in the qualifying group and although it is still technically possible for them to progress, it will take something of a miracle to see them go through.
Raul Fernandez (FC Dallas)
Defeats by Uruguay and Venezuela in the past week have sealed Peru’s fate, with them now unable to qualify for the World Cup. FC Dallas keeper Raul Fernandez played both games, and has appeared in 11 of their 14 matches in the qualifying campaign.
Egidio Arévalo Rios (Chicago Fire)
Uruguay edged closer to World Cup qualification this week, with wins over Peru and Colombia all but guaranteeing them at least a play-off berth. Chicago’s Arévalo played both games in their entirety, and has now appeared in 13 of their 14 qualifying matches. A stalwart of Los Charrúas’ midfield, if they make it to Brazil he will too.