022613_isi_mls10_usmntmj020513064 Michael Janosz/isiphotos.com
Major League Soccer

10 MLS Players Who Might Matter in 2014 World Cup

After an exodus of some top Major League Soccer players in the last two transfer windows, some might say the American talent pool on our shores is tapped out. Guess again.
BY By Liviu Bird Posted
February 26, 2013
2:27 PM
THE CONCACAF HEXAGONAL started poorly for the United States, with a 2-1 loss in Honduras. Particularly notable was the fact that the Honduran players cutting through the Americans were largely Major League Soccer products.

It was a contrast that left many lamenting the state of American talent in the nation’s own league, as American MLS players received much of the blame for the loss. Of course, it’s still early, and a few American-based players are just breaking into the national team set-up under Jurgen Klinsmann.

If observers learned anything from that woeful first match in San Pedro Sula, it should be that the talent on American shores is plentiful. Here are 10 Yanks plying their trade at home who could don the red, white, and blue in Brazil two summers from now.

10. Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Real Salt Lake veteran Nick Rimando is firmly ensconced as the national team's No. 3 goalkeeper since Klinsmann came aboard. Look no further than the first leg of the 2012 MLS Cup Western Conference Semifinals against Seattle Sounders FC for proof of his quality.

Though undersized, Rimando’s strength lies in his incredible shot-stopping ability. He led RSL to the 2009 MLS Cup with particular prowess in shootout situations. He is steadily establishing himself as one of the best goalkeepers in the league as well as the rock his team relies on to get wins in difficult situations.

Tim Howard and Brad Guzan are in no danger of losing their spots on the depth chart to Rimando, but a solid third option is never a bad thing. Should an injury occur and the need for a goalkeeper to step up presents itself, Rimando is capable of getting the job done.

9. Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake)

Another RSL player who won’t stray far from the bench in meaningful competition is Kyle Beckerman. Like his club teammate Rimando, Beckerman has been in Klinsmann’s plans since the coach took the helm.

The American midfield is a crowded place, especially with Danny Williams, Michael Bradley, and Jermaine Jones all playing in the holding slot—at times, all in the same match. But Beckerman provides that solid option for a just-in-case scenario.

Some of his club form translated to the Canada friendly in January, as he patrolled the area in front of the center backs, but if he is to have a serious chance to make the final 2014 roster, Beckerman will have to push forward and initiate more meaningful possession in the attack.

8. Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City)

Matt Besler received his first U.S. call-ups after an impressive 2012 season in which he was the MLS Defender of the Year. He started all but three league games for Sporting Kansas City, and although he and his defensive teammates weren’t under a lot of pressure against Canada in January, Besler was one of a small selection of players who impressed in that game.

His ascent to the top of MLS' defensive ranks has been swift, marked by his last two breakout seasons. Strong in the tackle and smart with the ball, Besler shows a composure and decision-making ability that American defenders have lacked recently.

7. Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA)

When Klinsmann talks about young players who are given their opportunities with the national team too early, Juan Agudelo jumps to mind. He made his debut at age 17 and became the youngest player to score for the Stars and Stripes in a 1-0 win in South Africa. He also scored the game-tying goal against Lionel Messi’s Argentina four months later.

But since then, Agudelo’s national team stock has dropped somewhat. He struggled to make much of an impact with the New York Red Bulls in 2012, and he was traded to Chivas USA. Training stints with VfB Stuttgart, Liverpool, Celtic, and West Ham came to nothing.

Finally, Klinsmann called him up for the friendly in Russia in November, and Agudelo responded by chasing down a long ball on top of the opposing penalty area and nodding it back for Michael Bradley to smash into the net. It was a good time to start his recovery back toward the top.

6. Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City)

Benny Feilhaber is another enigma who once seemed to be in high favor, with a bright future on the national team. In the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he only made a couple of appearances, but his vision and passing against Ghana in the round of 16 set up multiple scoring opportunities, including the penalty kick that tied the game.

His return to MLS at the beginning of the 2011 season was far from triumphant. A stint with the New England Revolution ended with the Revs deciding not to pick up Feilhaber’s contract option and trading him to Sporting Kansas City.

In Kansas City, Feilhaber will fit in much better in a supporting role rather than as the man expected to star. His passing game also meshes better with Sporting’s style than it did with New England’s. This season will be important in figuring out Feilhaber’s fate with the U.S.—which is very much up in the air.

5. Chris Pontius (D.C. United)

Were it not for a broken leg in 2011, Chris Pontius might already be an important part of the U.S. team. Niggling injuries have kept Pontius out of Klinsmann’s camps on a couple of occasions, including the 2013 January camp, when he was close to 100 percent fit.

Pontius can play in a variety of attacking positions, including on the wing, in attacking midfield, or as a forward. His comfort anywhere in the attacking half makes him a versatile solution off the bench, which is where he would be if he were on the American squad.

4. Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy)

While he didn’t acquit himself too well in Honduras, Omar Gonzalez could still easily be a starting center back for the U.S. in Brazil. His biggest strength is in the air, where he made a great impact on both ends in the 2012 MLS Cup Final, leading to him winning the game’s MVP award.

A comeback player himself, Gonzalez made his 2012 debut in July after recovering from an ACL tear sustained on loan to FC Nuremberg after his 2011 MLS Defender of the Year season. Even after missing the first half of the season, Gonzalez was again in the conversation for Defender of the Year last year.

His return boosted the Los Angeles Galaxy from a dismal spot near the foot of the Western Conference to MLS Cup champion. Gonzalez’s international debut was shaky, but as he gains experience and comfort at that higher level, American fans will be glad he chose to play for the U.S. over Mexico.

3. Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)

Completing the comeback trio on this list is the 2012 MLS Comeback Player of the Year, Seattle Sounders FC’s Eddie Johnson. The striker has enjoyed a career revival under head coach Sigi Schmid, harkening back to a time when he was supposed to be the next American star, earning a high-profile transfer to the English Premier League.

Since finding his way back to the national team, Johnson has played both as a wide midfielder and striker, and he has looked promising despite not playing his preferred target role to this point. The first start on his comeback tour resulted in both goals in a 2-1 win at Antigua and Barbuda in the CONCACAF semifinal round of qualifying.

This World Cup veteran—yes, EJ made two appearances in Germany in 2006—is on track for a big second chance in Brazil.

2. Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

When Jurgen Klinsmann plays with wide players, Graham Zusi’s quality comes out. Even when he doesn’t, Zusi at least finds his way onto the roster. The 2012 MLS assist leader plays on the wing for the U.S., but he plays as a attacking midfielder in Sporting Kansas City’s 4-3-3.

His vision and ability on set pieces make him Sporting’s most pivotal attacking player. His form carries over to the U.S. national team, where he is the only wide player to start regularly under Klinsmann.

With Zusi taking Landon Donovan’s position on the right side of midfield, the U.S. hasn’t missed a beat. Right now, the University of Maryland product has the best chance of any MLS player to start for the U.S. at Brazil 2014.

1. Landon Donovan (Los Angeles Galaxy)

Despite all his wavering and the uncertainty surrounding his future in the game, Landon Donovan remains the best player to ever wear the American jersey. It’s a stretch to say the U.S. needs him to have any chance of playing well in Brazil—but he would make it much more likely.

When he is in top form, Donovan helps any team for which he plays. He turned it on for the Galaxy during the playoffs, and watching him combine with forward partner Robbie Keane was a delight.

The key to Donovan for 2014 is whether he can focus on the game and whether he enjoys the game enough to play well. Donovan plays his best when he is having fun, so American fans must hope he regains that joy and reignites the deep desire that he showed in South Africa.

OK, time to express your agreement or disapproval. Do so below, please.

Tomorrow's follow-up piece: 10 current MLS players who will likely matter in the 2018 World Cup.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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